An enormous whirring cloud of thousands of bees overhead need not be intimidating. It is not a scene from a horror movie where they are looking for a victim to attack. What appears to be frenzied and chaotic, is really just an airborne mass of honey bees in search of a new home. In fact, when you see it, it is a sign that all is well in the world of nature.
May and June is the typical time period for what beekeepers call "swarming season." It happens every year when a strong and healthy hive gets crowded and the bees need more space. The old queen and approximately one half of the worker honey bees leave the old hive to find a new home. The bees load themselves up with honey for the flight and eventually settle in a large clump or cluster. This is most often on a tree branch, but can also be on something like a fence post.
From as little as two hours to two days, the cluster remains intact while "scout" bees search for a suitable home. When one is found, the message is communicated and once again the bees break into the swarming cloud and make their way to this new home.
Photo by Ben Whitney
May through July is the typical time for bees to swarm.
Without human interference or a direct threat such as doing something reckless and poking them, the bees are relatively docile because they have no hive to protect, which normally is full of brood and honey. Just leave them alone and let nature take its course. Certainly never kill them, for they are getting ready to build new comb and do what they do best make honey and pollinate plants that grow food.
Back at the old hive, the female worker bees have created a new queen by feeding a larva more royal jelly than the others so that it becomes a fully developed bee with sexual organs capable of reproducing. When she emerges from her cell, she will sting any others not fully emerged, for there can only be one queen. This virgin queen soon takes flight where she mates in air with several males (drones) from the surrounding area. This allows for diverse genetics and good stock, particularly in our northern climate where bees need to survive through some very cold winters and be able to fight off several common afflictions and diseases. All in all, it is nature's way of reproducing more colonies.
Old or new, each hive buzzes with so much activity that it is no wonder we have the saying "busy as a bee" or making a "bee-line" for something we want. From the very beginning of its life, each bee has its job, with a mature hive containing at least 60,000 bees. There are relatively few drones, whose primary purpose is reserved for mating. When a drone mates, he dies in the process. Those drones that have not mated are ejected from the hive at the onset of winter so that they do not partake of the limited supply of food.
The hive is primarily comprised of females who do all the work. New bees clean their own cell and graduate to other jobs. Nurse bees feed larva. Others feed the queen and guide her around to various cells where she is to lay eggs. Others pack cells with pollen and nectar. Some fan the cells to remove excess moisture, which helps to create the honey or may fan to keep the hive cool on a hot day. Bees cap each cell with wax to preserve the honey and of course, are also needed to build more wax comb. There are bees that remove excrement from the hive and guard bees that watch the entrance. Some spread an antiseptic type substance across the entry way of the hive that all bees have to touch as they enter home, much like taking off your shoes to prevent all the outside germs from getting into your house. In the end, a worker honey bee becomes a forager. In this job, she flies the countryside in search of pollen, nectar, and water to bring back to the hive. In the summer, she lives only about 45 days, and one day, from all her constant work in the outside world (often filled with danger), she simply does not return.
"Liquid gold" is what many call honey because of its countless health benefits. For this reason, there are many commercial and amateur bee keepers across the country, and Chautauqua County is no exception. We have had our own Beekeeping Association as far back as the 1870s. The group, which meets once a month at the Frank Bratt Agriculture Center in Jamestown, has many members. Teaching each other and keeping updated in the business and life of bees, members are particularly interested in swarms at this time of the year. Honey bee enthusiasts get excited about a swarm and will actually run toward it instead of away. You see, it's a way to get "free-bees" if they can be captured.
Having a "mind" of its own, a swarm will break up at will and fly away in a massive and humming cloud.
From personal experience as a beekeeper, it is a very sad and discouraging sight to see this. Four times in the last two weeks I have found myself pleading, "Don't go!" as bees flew off into my woods. From my own bee yard, I could have taken preventative measures. I had seen several queen cells in one hive and should have made a "split." Queen cells are much larger than the typical cell and resemble a peanut shell. This is evidence that the hive is preparing a new queen and will most likely swarm. A "split" is a process of finding the old queen and removing her with some brood into an empty hive; making the original hive think they have "swarmed." If successful, the bee keeper has doubled her investment! A hard lesson to be learned; have plenty of extra hives and accessories on hand!
We need bees for our food and honey is simply miraculous. With that in mind, it is best to leave swarms alone. Specific advice, given two years ago in this column in a series on the honey bee, is worth repeating. In a nutshell, or should we say "queen cell," use common sense caution and leave them alone. Don't panic. They rarely cause problems. Don't spray them with insecticides or water. Don't confuse them with other bees or wasps; they never build nests of paper or mud. If you are looking to rescue or remove them from a place that is not good, try to contact a beekeeper who may be able to remove them or knows someone in the Association who can.
Make it a good week in the "buzz" of summer. Next week, news from the Association regarding bee diseases and what you can do to help. One consolation for me regarding my four lost swarms, at least they are still in the area and have strengthened the declining bee population with diverse genetics. They are also helping to pollinate my neighbors' gardens, both residential and commercial.
Mary Burns Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Direct comments to firstname.lastname@example.org