Spring, the time of Swarms and Increase
In the Pacific Northwest, dandelions herald the start of bee season.
We start with hazelnuts and willows in February and by March everything starts blooming. Our farm is filled with blossoms — apple, pear, plum, peaches, rosemary, lavender, forget-me-not, azalea, olives, berries, goumi, fragrant lilacs and the long hanging tassels of maple blossoms. Spring comes early here, lush and full, but toward the end of summer and into fall we come up short. If you live in the PNW, starting in spring you’ll want to plant sunflowers, buckwheat, fall-blooming sedums, goldenrod and phacelia and more flowering herbs. Phacelia is rather extraordinary — as the flower uncoils it puts out a new bloom of nectar and pollen EVERY DAY for 45-60 days. Find some seed and plant it to start blooming in summer and then plant more every 2 weeks thru July for September and October blooms.
THE NECESSITY OF SWARMING
Watch Jacqueline working with swarms. (<– Scroll toward the bottom of that link.)
One evening I had a feeling one of our hives was full and needed more space. Twice in the prior days, I had seen big groups of bees come out at midday for what I thought were new-bee orientation flights, short forays the younger bees make in front of and around the hive that prepare them for transitioning to full-time foraging. But something about these flights seemed different. In a typical orientation flight, the bees do a lot of mingling and swinging back and forth as they test their wings while hanging in the air. These groups of bees instead flew out, hung in the air, and faced the hive, without a lick of back and forth movement, until hundreds of them were outside. Ten minutes later, they all went back inside. I mentioned to my husband, Joseph, that we ought to add another box to the hive and give them more room to expand.
Early the next morning, before the sun warmed the air, seemed a quiet, peaceful time to add a box. This hive was a vertical Warre hive, in which new empty boxes are added on the bottom, and, when full, hive boxes are taken off the top later in the season. I placed an empty box on the ground next to the hive so I could put it underneath once Joseph had lifted the stacked boxes off the bottom board.
Joseph picked up the stack, and I expected to see the empty wood floor underneath. Instead, the entire floor of the hive was thickly covered with bees, all facing toward the hive door. The gathered bees looked like a cadre of suited executives, each with a briefcase in hand, waiting for a train in controlled anticipation. They were perfectly still when we lifted the hive body up. Not one bee flinched.
We were weeks too late to add the box. The hive had long since determined their space was full, and they stood at the ready, patiently awaiting the signal that would tell them to begin the swarm. Sure enough, when sun hit the hive in late morning, they poured out and departed in an enthusiastic swarm cloud.
I have noticed that swarms are very good predictors of sunny weather. When my phone rings with a few swarm calls before noon, I know that means there will be a break in the weather. I tell my husband it’s a great day to make hay because the weather will be dry enough to cut the hay and leave it drying on the ground for a few days before baling.
I won’t say the weather knowledge of a swarm is one hundred percent reliable. I do find wet swarms occasionally, but that could happen because a swarmed hive didn’t find a new home quickly enough and hung in a tree so long that the weather changed. Once in my own bee yard, I saw a hive swarm to a nearby tree and park themselves on the tree limb for an hour, waiting for their new home to reveal itself. When the sky suddenly clouded up, they matter-of-factly moved back into the hive and waited inside, dry and safe, until the next clear day.
What prompts bees to swarm? Each spring, as the flowers come out, colonies go through a big growth spurt called building up. Longer days and warmer weather draw the bees out into sunshine, where blooming trees, bushes, and field flowers beckon. By nature, bees are industrious. They gather pollen and nectar to feed everyone, and they build comb to fill with food and new bees. The queen lays thousands of eggs to increase the colony’s population. The intent is to completely fill the hive, and most colonies do that well. Knowing the colony is nearing peak capacity and ready to create another entire hive thrills them and activity ramps up even further.
Every day the house bees prepare the empty cells for the queen to lay eggs into each day. In times of abundance, when plenty of flowers are in bloom, the colony may expand the honey area to wherever they find empty cells, including the brood chamber. When a colony has no more brood cells to fill because they are all full of honey, the hive is called honey bound. There simply are not enough empty cells for the queen to continue laying new brood in. The colony’s growth stops and can even begin to reduce—not what it wants to happen in the time of increase.
When the bees know the hive is nearly full—when there is no more room in the hive to place more eggs, pollen, or honey—they begin preparations for swarming. These preparations are extremely exciting and leave the hive humming with activity. They make sure the departing queen has laid enough queens eggs to ensure that a new queen will hatch and replace her. Scout bees, meanwhile, will have started looking for a new home. If they’ve found one, the swarm will depart the hive, land on a branch for a few short minutes to make sure the queen is with them, then fly off to their new home and get started building comb.
A swarm is far more organized than one would think. The intention of the swarm at the start is to create chaos, and from the outside, that’s just what it looks like. From the inside, one can see bees flying in every direction in an ever-expanding sphere. Many times, I’ve walked into swarms and been amazed at the complexity of their undertaking. Each bee flies in looping circles, keeping a near-miraculous even distance between and around each bee in the sphere. As I’ve moved inside the swarm, never has a single bee mistakenly flown against me. Each healthy bee knows the exact location of every other bee, tree branch, person, and any other object near the swarm, and accommodates itself around those objects.
Bees are at their most gentle during a swarm. They have no territory to protect and only one immediate mission: to conceal the queen as she flies in the midst of them. The chaos of thousands of flying bees is meant to keep anyone from knowing which bee is the queen. You’d be hard pressed to see her in the clouds of thousands. The bees create enough commotion that their precious cargo, the beautiful queen, stays hidden amongst the many and thus protected from anything that might cause her harm.
Once everyone is in the air, they raise the energy even more, doing the bee equivalent of whooping and hollering. The scene is pure exuberant happiness.
During swarming a magnificent event occurs: the queen’s fertility is renewed. When the queen flies with the swarm into the light of the sun, the sunlight replenishes her hormones and ensures her reproductive ability for the coming year. In this way, through swarming, the queen keeps her fertility intact for up to seven years.
Once the queen is enswarmed and has flown in the sun’s light for a while, the swarm’s purpose changes. Now the swarm seeks to find a place to land and gather themselves together. The transition happens so quickly it is startling. One minute thirty thousand bees fly about in what looks like disorganized bedlam, and then suddenly there is a focus point, such as a nearby tree branch. They fly to it and begin landing one atop the other in a ball. As they land, they form themselves into a hanging, elliptically shaped cluster, like a soft football. The first layer of a few hundred bees grips the branch, and each successive bee grabs onto another bee’s legs until they become one hanging mass of bees. When all the buzzing bees have landed, they quiet into a soothing hum, resting in place, waiting for the scouts to find and communicate where their new home will be. The swarm cluster won’t move again until a new home is discovered.
This may take half an hour or, if no potential home seems right, a few days. During this time they patiently wait, docile and meditative, in quiet rapture.
In Our Own Words
When we make new queens, we sing the Song of Increase. Swarming is an expression of gratitude for the colony, a proclamation of work well done. The queen toils in darkness all the year except for this one brief time when she emerges into the light.
An ascended queen stores light like a holy sacrament within her. She doesn’t need a lot, nor often, but she does need to come into the light once each year to renew her fertility. Her brief annual flight reconnects her with the sun. The sun’s light on her body stimulates her reproductive system, a symbolic remembering of her mating flight, and renews the fecundity, the life force, within her.
This is not merely a random moment of brightness flashing upon her. The entire mature community participates and is integral to this renewal.
Before we leave our old home, we who are departing fill our bellies with honey, enough to last through our journey. We make joy, like a bon voyage, a celebration. The hive is filled with anticipation and exhilaration.
Everyone who is leaving moves toward the open door in high excitement. We pour out of the hive like water.
When we leave the old hive, we come out and fly in rings and loops. We color all the spaces with our presence. This is an expression of joyful excitement at the imminent increase we are embarking upon. In the flurry and whirling, we create a veil for our queen.
And now the queen emerges into the swarm. Sometimes the queen has done this before and has a memory of flying and floating in the air surrounded by the hive bees. The queen glows in the sun’s light. She flies freely in the mass of bees, the entire hive surrounding and concealing her as she drinks in the sun’s nourishment. In swarming, the queen mates with the sun again, a joyful orgasmic culmination and celebration of purpose, duty, and destiny. The sounds and movements are foreplay to the swarm’s orgasm, each step fully expressing the hive’s mission of continuing fertility. The swarm provides safety for her renewal. The queen opens herself energetically and physically, inviting the coming year’s fertility. The sun’s light reaches into the queen, initiating a chemical process that unlocks and vitalizes the coming year’s generation of sperm and seed and thus renews the hive. In her beauty she flies at the heart of us, just as she dwells within the heart of the hive.
This is a celebration of our increase, and nectar-laden we each are, the sweetness of life within our bellies. We especially like the spring honeys for our journey because they center us on a map of our lands, immersing us in the scent and flavor expression of the plant life we serve as the messengers of the flowers.
Those bees left behind in the old home are younger bees who are still in the roles of the house bees—nursery tenders, comb builders, pollen fermenters, nectar makers, cleaners, and guard bees. We who depart with the swarm are all foragers, mature bees.
As we fly out, each bee has an energetic cushion around her, and we are intensely aware of all the bees around us. During a swarm, we have heightened perception. Even though the swarm is moving in every direction, each bee is aware of all the cues going through the swarm. In an instant, we sense that everyone who is coming is with us. In that moment, flying in all directions becomes flying in one direction.
In the landscape a spot is picked to alight, and we fly to that spot and coalesce into the swarm body. Clasping each other, the central bees hold the branch. Layers of bees land and take hold of the bees beneath them. Each and one, we are breathy, cheerful, adventurously elated. When we alight on a tree, we sing, “All is well. We are in the hands of God.” We land and gather with no protection but our number.
Upon alighting on our branch, we embrace. We clasp each other creating an interlinked mesh, hand to foot, layering as a gilded swarm, abreast of each and ready to begin anew.
Questions for the Future
Conventional and commercial beekeepers don’t permit bees to swarm for three reasons.
1. Profits drop when the small amount of bees left behind cause honey production to dip.
2, A fearful public often confuses docile honeybee swarms with aggressive hornets or yellow jackets.
3. Conventional beekeepers want to control the colony’s breeding.
The practice of preventing swarming is harmful to bees because it jettisons the proven manner in which colonies keep their old queens healthy and long-lived and also prevents young queens from mating naturally.
In conventional beekeeping, queens with commercially desirable genetics may be artificially inseminated to preserve the breed’s characteristics, however, these queens’ fertility often declines within a year and they are then replaced with similar-traited queens.
During swarming the bees conceal the Queen so she can renew her fertility and therefore extend her longevity. Together, the swarm creates another honeybee community in a new location. New queens hatched after the swarm’s departure will mate with wild bees and introduce new genetics into the hive. Wild-bred queens can remain fertile for five years or more. Wild-bee genes may help the colony be stronger and more disease resistant.
When we understand the beauty and importance of the bees’ natural swarming habits, we may ask different questions. If swarming means healthy bees, can we live with less profit? Can we educate our neighbors and engage them in honeybee protection? As caretakers of these precious beings, can we trust Nature’s wisdom and methods?What’s best for the bees?”
Blessed with this new information, we have a richer, deeper understanding of how necessary swarming is to the honeybee.
Perhaps we beekeepers who strive to provide a more natural setting for our bees can learn to rejoice with our bees in the miracle of the swarm. As guardians of our bees, we too, can become an integral part of the swarming process by honoring this unique event in the cycle of bee life and allowing it to unfold as Nature intended.
— Excerpted from “SONG OF INCREASE: Returning to Our Sacred Partnership with Honeybees.” The book is available through Amazon and local bookstores. VISIT THIS LINK to find it easily.