Today was a beautiful day to sit back and appreciate nature. I was just hanging out in the screen room, with my back against the house, chit chatting with Jim, who was sitting opposite me, when I noticed a flurry of flying things beyond the screen wall. The air suddenly blackened and it was accompanied by an ever-growing buzz. This deepening mystery actually got Jim and me out of our, oh so comfortable, lounge chairs.
We both peered through the screens, as our vision was impaired by the winter protection still in place. We were not so foolish as to slide open the door for a better view. In short order we concluded it was bees, not a few bees but a swarm of bees. This swarm, which I had never witnessed before, followed the outside contours of the room from the east side to south. There they came to rest on the exterior deck table and chairs. Now there wasn’t a hundred bees, nor a thousand, but perhaps ten thousand. For a few moments you couldn’t see the white table top.
My God, this was ‘Wild America‘, or as close as I wanted to get to it. Figuring they were just passing through, we watch them doing their bee dance for a while, then sat back down. Sure enough the next time we looked they were gone, or so we thought. Cautiously, I slid open the big doors and stepped on to the deck.
Good thing my movements were gingerly. Not fifteen feet away, clustered about a thick branch of the lilac bush and not two feet from the swing, were all of the bees. All ten thousand of them in classic bee huddle. I back peddled, stepped up into the screen room and ever so gently slid the door shut. What were we to do?
I grabbed the iPad and looked up the habits of swarming bees. We certainly couldn’t have them live in our yard so close to where we sat. But I didn’t want to kill the honey bees which are so beneficial to the environment. I would have to look up a beekeeper to come get them. Before I made the call, I read about swarming bees in its entirety. That’s when we determined, since it was going to be inclement weather for the next couple of days, and we wouldn’t be outdoors in the yard anyway, we would see if nature would take its course.
Every once in a while you really need to trust in the miracles that nature provides. The very next time we looked, about an hour later the bees were gone. Every one of them. They behaved in a text-book fashion. So glad it didn’t cost us hundreds of dollars to relocate the little honeys and their virgin queen.
Following, for your education, is a bit about the habits of swarming bees, from Wikipedia.
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Swarming is the natural means of reproduction of honey bee colonies. A new honey bee colony is formed when the queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees, a process called swarming. In the prime swarm, about 60% of the worker bees leave the original hive location with the old queen. This swarm can contain thousands to tens of thousands of bees. Swarming is mainly a spring phenomenon, usually within a two- or three-week period depending on the locale, but occasional swarms can happen throughout the producing season.
Secondary afterswarms may happen but are rare. Afterswarms are usually smaller and are accompanied by one or more virgin queens. Sometimes a beehive will swarm in succession until it is almost totally depleted of workers.
Entomologists consider the colony as a superorganism. An individual bee without a colony cannot survive for long. The colony also needs a certain colony size to reproduce. In the process of swarming the original single colony reproduces to two and sometimes more colonies.
The worker bees create queen cups throughout the year. When the hive gets ready to swarm the queen lays eggs into the queen cups. New queens are raised and the hive may swarm as soon as the queen cells are capped and before the new virgin queens emerge from their queen cells. A laying queen is too heavy to fly long distances. Therefore, the workers will stop feeding her before the anticipated swarm date and the queen will stop laying eggs. Swarming creates an interruption in the brood cycle of the original colony. During the swarm preparation, scout bees will simply find a nearby location for the swarm to cluster. This intermediate stop is not for permanent habitation and will normally leave within three days to a suitable location. It is from this temporary location that the cluster will determine the final nest site based on the level of excitement of the dances of the scout bees.
When a honey bee swarm emerges from a hive they do not fly far at first. They may gather in a tree or on a branch only a few meters from the hive. There, they cluster about the queen and send 20 – 50 scout bees out to find a suitable new nest locations. The scout bees are the most experienced foragers in the cluster. An individual scout returning to the cluster promotes a location she found. She uses a dance similar to the waggle dance to indicate direction and distance to others in the cluster. The more excited she is about her findings the more excitedly she dances. If she can convince other scouts to check out the location she found, they may take off, check out the proposed site and promote the site further upon their return. Several different sites may be promoted by different scouts at first. After several hours and sometimes days, slowly a favorite location emerges from this decision-making process. When all scouts agree on a final location the whole cluster takes off and flies to it. A swarm may fly a kilometer or more to the scouted location. This collective decision-making process is remarkably successful in identifying the most suitable new nest site and keeping the swarm intact. A good nest site has to be large enough to accommodate the swarm (about 15 liters in volume), has to be well protected from the elements, receive a certain amount of warmth from the sun and be not infested with ants.
Swarming creates a vulnerable time in the life of honey bees. Cast swarms are provisioned only with the nectar or honey they carry in their stomachs. A swarm will starve if it does not quickly find a home and more nectar stores. This happens most often with early swarms that are cast on a warm day that is followed by cold or rainy weather in spring. The remnant colony after having cast one or more swarms is usually well provisioned with food, but the new queen can be lost or eaten by predators during her mating flight, or poor weather can prevent her mating flight. In this case the hive has no further young brood to raise additional queens, and it will not survive. As soon as an afterswarm (the second and subsequent swarm after the old queen leaves with the prime swarm) is established at a new location, the bees raise a new queen, or sometimes a replacement virgin queen is already present in the afterswarm.
Africanized bees are notable for their propensity to swarm or abscond. Absconding is a process where the whole hive leaves rather than splits like in swarming. Being tropical bees, they tend to swarm or abscond any time food is scarce, thus making themselves vulnerable in colder locales. Mainly for lack of sufficient winter stores, the Africanized bee colonies tend to perish in the winter in higher latitudes.
Swarming is to the beekeeper what losing all of his calves is to a cattleman. Beekeepers try to anticipate swarming and assist the bees to reproduce in a more controlled fashion by “splitting hives” or making “nucs.” This saves the “calves” and keeps the “cow” in condition to accomplish some work.
Old fashioned laissez-faire beekeeping depended upon the capture of swarms to replenish beekeeper colonies and early swarms were especially valued. An old English poem says:
- A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
- A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
- A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.
(Or possibly for the last line, “A swarm of bees in July, let them fly.”)