Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Honey Bee Swarms

They're not as scary as they look. This is a posed picture - really.

Swarming is when the old queen bee leaves the hive and takes about 60% of the worker bees with her. This is a natural means of honeybee reproduction and generally occurs in the spring.

 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
(Old English Poem)

What happens during swarming is this: For whatever reason - overcrowding being one, the queen determines that it is time to leave the hive. Scout bees are sent out to find a suitable home and queen cells are prepared within the hive to ensure the survival of the colony after she is gone. Fifty - 60% of the worker bees then tank up on honey for fuel for the flight and to begin their new hive. At the queen's signal the bees take flight and leave the hive, generally clustering on a nearby tree. From this initial resting place the scouts will agree upon a final location for their new home, but they may remain at their first rest stop for as many as three days. In most cases they will make several stops along the way because the queen is not able to fly long distances.

 Since my early 20's and Mother Earth News I've been intrigued with beekeeping. I always wanted to have hives, but then children came along and I just assumed that this would be an unfulfilled dream. Besides, I had never really experienced bees, other than mean, stinging yellow jackets - who didn't poke sticks into their nests as a youngster?!  

One  afternoon in 1990 I walked out into the backyard and there was a terrific commotion in the air.  I was living in Houston in a typical subdivision; house upon house, and the entire sky was aflurry - black and seething.  I found myself in the midst of a huge honeybee colony that had lost their queen. An exterminator was trying to rid the house behind us of their hive and in the process these millions of bees were EVERYWHERE!. It was the coolest thing I'd ever experienced! It was like being enveloped in a cloudburst of flying bees, yet not getting stung. They were thick and LOUD! What a commotion! I stood there, amazed that I could be in the midst of this honeybee explosion and not be bothered with. They were totally consumed with finding their queen and I was hooked!

That's what swarming bees are like. Their entire focus is staying with their queen. They have no brood to protect and very little food reserves and they are on their way to a new location so they are as docile as can bee. When they leave their hive they will generally light on a small tree, though not always (as my last article shows) The branch becomes heavy with the weight of sixty percent of a hive, and depending on how large the original hive was, it can be quite massive! The worker bees surround the queen to protect and keep her warm. We liken a swarm to a buzzing ball of jello. They are all holding on to one another so it jiggles and wiggles, but they don't sting. 
It's very likely that you have walked right past a swarm of bees without even noticing. They are inconspicuous, stealthy and oh, SO COOL!

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