Any of you who work from home know that one of the secrets to being productive and avoiding distractions is to carve out a defined office space that is only used for work. I am fortunate in that I have been able to create such a space in a small structure in the middle of my garden.
Except in the height of winter, on most days I leave the door ajar so I can appreciate the scent of the flowers and the songs of the birds as they visit my garden each day. Occasionally a squirrel will stop and look in from the door mat to see what I am working on. (He has yet to come in and I don’t know what I’ll do if he ever does!) There is a friendly neighborhood cat who checks in from time to time to see if I’ll take a break and play with her. (Some days she gets lucky.)
Against the wall on the back side of my office/studio, Chuck and I keep a colony of honey bees. When the temps are above 50 degrees, I can hear the gentle hum of their buzzing as they go about their daily chores while I’m doing mine. If I take a pause to watch them, they routinely go in and out of their hive box with the precision and regularity of the planes landing and taking off from the airport.
Yesterday though, I could hear the gentle hum turn into a raucous rave as the temperatures rose over the course of the morning. I knew from last spring what this meant – it was time for them to swarm. And, on the one day a year in the spring when they swarm, all the precision flying goes out the window and, for about an hour or so, it turns into a frantic ball of buzzing in the sky.
Essentially a swarm is the colony’s way of handling overcrowding in the spring. The bees have just come through a winter when they have been hunkered down in the hive box busily flapping their wings to keep everyone warm. They have been eating down their reserves of honey while waiting for the spring flowers to provide fresh pollen and nectar. Once those flowers come on board, the colony starts making bees at a rapid pace to capitalize on the opportunity.
When the colony has more bees than the hive box can support, they will make a new queen who then ventures forth with about half of the worker bees from the original colony to establish a new ‘queendom’. This departure of the young queen and her entourage is what we know as a swarm and, since this behavior only occurs in the spring, this is why you only see swarms for a few weeks during this time of year.
In preparation for their home-searching journey, the bees gorge themselves in anticipation of it being a few days before they have found a suitable place to set up a new honey comb. This is one of only two times in the queen’s life when she will leave the hive (the other is to mate), so the queen is not the best when it comes to flying. She doesn’t need to be.
Consequently, the queen won’t be able to get very far before being totally exhausted on her first day outdoors. She lands wherever she is able to reach and the workers huddle around her, wherever she lands. Scouts then go out in search of a more suitable location and the swarm stays put, sustained from all that gorging they did earlier. Once a new home is found, they will all go off again to settle down for good.
For some people, watching a flying swarm or even seeing one hanging in a tree or on a fence is cause for concern but, actually, this is one of the safest times to be around the bees. They are well fed and in search of a new home so unless you threaten them, they aren’t the least bit interested in you!
Last year the swarm flew off and didn’t stay close enough to home for me to watch them. This year, though, they quite nicely settled down on a low-hanging tree branch in our neighbor’s yard. Having grown up in rural Wisconsin, our neighbor wasn’t alarmed by the sight of the swarm and actually came over and asked if I wanted to try to capture the colony. That sounded like a grand challenge – we quite enthusiastically said ‘yes’. 😉
We suited up in our bee gear, pulled out the ladder and pruning shears and headed to the neighbor’s yard. As Chuck held the branches supporting the swarm, I snipped them from the tree. The secret to capturing a swarm is to capture the queen. If you get the queen, everyone else will follow her scent to their new home. It was quite simple to carry them back to our side of the fence and place the branch in our spare hive box. The only challenge remaining was to get them to stay there long enough to decide that the box was their new home. Typically when first establishing a hive, you close up the doorway with marshmallows and, by the time the bees eat their way out, they will have decided to stay put. We didn’t have any of the preferred marshmallows to use so we used a hot dog bun. They didn’t eat the bun but it did serve to keep them inside long enough for them to decide to stay. Success!
We’ll keep an eye on our new yard mates all year to make sure they stay healthy by suiting up and opening our Kenyan top bar hive every couple of weeks to look for pests or other problems. We’ll harvest honey from them all summer long taking care to leave enough of their sweet sustenance for them to survive on their own over winter. For our efforts, we’ll reap the rewards of prolific fruits and vegetables that result from their pollination.
If you are fortunate enough to get to watch a swarm this spring, be not afraid. If the bees happen to hang around somewhere that you don’t want them, please don’t pull out the can of insect death spray. Call your local beekeeping society. Some beekeeper will be as thrilled as we were to come by and capture the swarm to continue the cycle of life.