How would you react if you found a swarm of 10,000 bees? Would it be like a scene from a disaster movie with you running away, clutching your face and screaming?
Up until my first day training as a beekeeper apprentice I had always assumed swarming meant those bees were aggressive or threatening. They were something to be feared and avoided. Maybe the reason for this was the portrayal of bee swarms in the media as “angry, killer swarms” that hunt people down as they flee. Or maybe it’s just because a swarm is a mass of literally thousands of bees, uncontained, and there’d be no way to stop them if they did all try to sting you! I remember on my first day of beekeeper training my mentor caught a swarm of bees with his bare hands and I thought he was crazy.
We had been inspecting the hives for about an hour. The morning was hot and humid. I had become relaxed and calm by watching the bees dance on the comb for the first time. And then, suddenly, Scott spotted a swarm of bees behind us on a tree near the hives. They hadn’t been there just a few minutes ago! The bees were clustered together in a ball hanging on a banana leaf. The large leaf, which is normally upright on a banana tree, sagged with the weight of the swarm. I was unsettled by the mass of bees but Scott went right up to the banana tree.
He was just wearing a veil, no other protective gear. He reached up and pulled the leaf off of the tree; I heard a crack as the stem broke away, and the bees buzzed a little louder. And just like that, he was holding a leaf with more than 10,000 bees on it in his bare hands! He walked the swarm to an empty hive and shook the leaf over the hive a few times until most of the bees fell into the box below. He placed the cover back on top of the hive. He had caught the swarm.
We continued through the hive checks as normal until we found the hive the swarm came from. As we inspected the hive, Scott explained there are several indications this was the hive where the swarm originated. This hive was overflowing with bees. They were bubbling up over the tops of the frames as soon as we opened the hive. Each frame we pulled was covered with bees so we could barely see the comb underneath them. This is one of the possible reasons why the bees swarmed; There was not enough room in this hive for all of those bees.
He also pointed out Queen cups and Queen cells in the wax. A Queen cup is the start of a Queen cell, where a new Queen bee is raised. A Queen cell looks like a peanut shell on the frame. These are signs of a swarm because when a hive prepares to swarm the worker bees ready the hive, by creating Queen cups for the original Queen to lay future Queens into. She does not want to leave the original hive Queenless, so she lays several possible successor eggs into the Queen cups. These larvae are fed on royal jelly: a white, creamy secretion which transforms these eggs into Queen larvae. Before these new Queens hatch, the original Queen will leave the hive with around half the population in the form of a swarm. Thousands of bees stream out of the hive together. She is at the center of the swarm. The other bees cluster around her to keep her safe. They will land nearby and send scout bees to find a safe location for their new home.
This is the stage where Scott and I found the swarm. Because the bees are searching for a new place to live and have no honey stores to defend they can be relatively easy to handle at this point. If we had not found the swarm they would have continued their search until they found a safe place to nest in a hollow tree trunk, rock cavity, or they may have found the boxed hive on their own.
Swarming is a means of hive reproduction. Not just at an individual level where the Queen lays eggs but at a species level where one hive becomes two. The original Queen will start to lay eggs in the new hive and the Queen she left behind will continue the first hive. This accelerates the number of bees made collectively overall. This process of planning for and ensuring that the first hive is still set up to succeed demonstrates how the bees work together to better their species as a whole. It is not about one individual bee, but rather, a sort of investment in the future of all bees. Learning this about the bees makes me think about what I can do to better not just myself, but my community and, perhaps, humanity as a whole.
The more I learn about swarms the more I find them fascinating instead of something to be feared. The bees showed me that gaining an understanding of why and how something happens can change your perception of it. The unknown was what made a swarm scary to me, but now I see the beauty in it. Today I invite you to learn about something that scares you and maybe it will change the way you think!
Thank you for reading.