People are not the only ones who’ve been feeling cooped up with all the rain.
I’ve watched our honey bees try to venture out of the hive several times these past few weeks. Whenever there was a break in the rain, a few intrepid worker bees would emerge from the narrow hive entrance and test the air: Still too cold. And – oops! Here comes the rain again.
Back inside they’d go.
Last Friday, when the end of a long string of cold, wet days was almost in sight, I told my friends: You watch, when the first sunny day comes, the bees will be swarming.
Monday arrived, and so did the sun. Our phone rang. A friend hosting a couple of our hives on her property, said: “Help, bees are swarming in the back yard!”
Swarm season has officially begun.
Encountering a swarm of honey bees can be unnerving, even downright frightening. But it’s not actually a bad thing. In fact, swarming is essential to their survival.
What most people don’t realize is the fact that, when they are swarming, bees are at their gentlest.
Here’s why: Right before they swarm, the bees fill their stomachs with as much honey as they can carry. They are getting ready to search for a new home, and need to bring along provisions. When they fly, full of honey, they are focused on transporting their food safely. Unless provoked, they are not interested in stinging anyone. They can’t risk losing their precious load – and their lives.
The other reason they are so gentle when swarming is because they are following their queen. She is their first priority; they will land wherever she does, forming a knot or cluster around her, to protect her and keep her warm.
As I mentioned, swarming is key to the survival of honey bees. The primary function of a swarm is to propagate; it is the natural means of reproduction of honey bee colonies. A new colony is formed when the queen bee takes a large number of her worker bees with her to find a new home. Some of the colony remains at the original hive with a new queen.
Entomologists consider the colony a superorganism: A single bee cannot survive long without a colony and the colony cannot survive without a certain number of individual members to reproduce. During the swarming process, the original single colony becomes two and sometimes more colonies.
This is especially crucial in light of colony collapse disorder, the dramatic decline in honey bee colonies that has been attributed to a number of factors, including varroa mites, pesticides and malnutrition because of large-scale, single-crop commercial farming.
Wherever the queen bee stops to rest – usually on a tree branch not far from the hive just vacated – her workers cluster around her. A swarm cluster will move on to a suitable nest within a day or two.
While clustered in this temporary location, 20 to 30 scout bees fly off in search of a new home. Each one will return and promote a location she’s found, doing a dance to communicate the distance and direction to the rest of the colony. The more excited a scout is about her discovered location, the more excitedly she will dance. Other scouts might fly off to investigate the site.
After several hours and sometimes days, a favorite location emerges. Once consensus has been reached among the scouts, the colony will fly off to its new home.
If a swarm happens to gather on your property, you can call a beekeeper to come remove it. The Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association, established in the early 1980s, is one of the largest beekeeping clubs on the West Coast, with more than 300 members.
The association has a list of swarm patrol volunteers posted on its website. The volunteer will request a $50 donation to help pay for the club’s school and community programs.
As I pointed out in my article last spring, , our lives largely depend on honey bees. They are great pollinators, increasing the abundance and quality of flowers, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds.
C. Marina Marchese, beekeeper and author of Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper, writes: "One-third of the food produced in the world – or one out of three bites of anything we humans eat – depends, to some degree, on honeybees."
So don’t panic if you find yourself in the midst of a swarm.
“When they're swarming, bees are probably the most docile they will ever be,” according to the MDBA website. “Fat and happy honeybees, with no home to protect, are less likely to sting.”
If you are fortunate enough to observe this amazing phenomenon, know that it is a good and necessary thing – a natural process that ensures the survival of our honey bees.
And our own.