Spring, the time of Swarms & Increase
In my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest, it’s full-on spring and we are in bee season.
The dandelions bloomed about ten days ago and that’s the official start of the bee year. We started with hazelnuts and willows back in February but now everything’s blooming. Looking out my window, 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 is coming early here with most flowers a week or three earlier than in the past. This tells me I need to be on top of planting for fall flowers. If everything comes early there will be a dearth of bloom at the end of summer and into fall so I’m going to add more plantings of sunflowers, buckwheat, fall-blooming sedums, goldenrod and phacelia. Plant all of these. 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.
You’ve been hearing for awhile that I’m writing a book on bees. Here’s a chapter. I hope you enjoy it. The book should be done very, very soon and available for purchase.
Do you let your bees swarm?
THE NECESSITY OF SWARMING
Each spring as the flowers begin to bloom, the bee colony expands. Longer days and warmer weather draw the bees out into the sunshine. By nature, bees are industrious and this is their busiest time. They gather pollen to feed developing baby bees and the nectar that will become honey. Inside the hive young bees build new combs to hold pollen, honey, and the thousands of bee eggs the Queen lays to increase the colony’s population. The intent is to completely fill the hive and most colonies do that well.
Bees live in what they call a UNITY, a common consciousness wherein each bee knows the thoughts and actions of all other bees within the colony. Thus every bee in the hive knows the status of the hive’s health, production, and coherence at every minute. Knowing the colony is nearing peak capacity and ready to reproduce another entire hive, thrills them and activity ramps up even further.
At some point nearly every cell will hold nectar and honey, pollen, or bee larvae. When the hive is full, the signal goes out to the colony that it’s time to reproduce itself.
Bees reproduce new colonies by one of Nature’s most remarkable methods — they swarm. While common sense would imagine the new hive is made up of the newest bees, it’s just the opposite. The old bees leave their established location to the younger bees who inherit and take over the old hive.
A swarm is made up of the old Queen and the mature forager bees, about 2/3 of the colony. The swarming bees fly off together to seek a new home in a distant location where they setup house, thus adding another living community of bees to the area’s hive population. The younger bees are left behind to care for the next generation of bees and the new Queen who will hatch, mate and become the matriarch of the new hive who took over the old colony’s home. Here is how that happens.
A week before swarming, the nursery bees prepare a dozen special vertical comb cells to hold eggs that will develop into new Queens, one of whom will take the current Queen’s place as the reproductive force within the hive. Once these eggs are halfway developed, the hive consciousness understands it is time to prepare to swarm.
At the perfect moment, the hive generates a signal and each departing bee fills its belly with a drop of honey. Then they pour out of the hive in a flood. Ten to twenty thousand bees tumble out the doorway and lift into the air in clouds of rapture.
Bees are exceptionally 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. As the reproductive force in the colony, the Queen is the most important bee in the swarm. The chaos of thousands of flying bees is meant to keep predators from knowing which bee is the Queen.
I’ve walked into the middle of swarms many times, always amazed at the complexity of the swarm’s undertaking. Each bee flies in looping circles, keeping a near miraculous even distance between and around itself and the ever expanding swarm sphere. As I’ve moved inside the swarm, no single bee has ever mistakenly flown against me. Each bee knows the exact location of every other flying bee, tree branch, person, and object near the swarm and accommodates its flight around it.
Swarming is a necessary part of the honeybee life cycle. Conventional beekeeping teaches that the beekeeper ought to prevent the hive from swarming because the reduced number of bees left behind causes a slow down in honey production. Truly it does but the reasons for swarming far outweigh human convenience.
Each spring my hives swarm. They do this when everything in the hive is perfect: Plenty of eggs close to hatching, pollen ready to feed the nursery bees, and as much honey as can fit on the comb. When there’s no more room to put eggs, pollen or honey, the colony reproduces itself by leaving all the fruits of their labor behind for the soon-to-hatch new queen and young colony as they older ones go off to create a new hive on their own, from scratch. Even before the colony departs, the scouts start looking for a new home. The hive hums with activity and excitement.
During swarm time the reigning Queen’s fertility comes up for renewal. This recharge of hormones occurs when the established Queen flies out from the hive and into the light of the sun. In this way, through swarming, the Queen is restored to her full fertility year after year, for all her natural life.
As a channel for bees, I have been blessed with the ability to have conversations with them. This new information about the significance of swarming was given to me by the bees.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
When we make new queens, we sing the Song of Increase. A hive singing the Song of Increase is in full harmony. This is the highest state of being within the hive, the time when every bee is in right action and the hive is in full expression, when Love flourishes within the hive. This is what all hives seek, to sing the Song of Increase. This song nourishes us by encouraging an expansive presence in each bee who then moves within the hive with an emanation larger than our bodies, rippling off our hairs, giving the impression that each bee glows, incandesces within the darkness of the hive.
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 as 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.
Soon the moment comes when it’s time to 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 excitement.
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. Also in the flurry and whirl, we create a veil for our Queen.
When she departs the hive, she flies to the center-most place we have defined, just as she dwells within the hive in the heart of the hive. Then we move as one to the place our scouts have chosen as our temporary stopping point, a place to regather and account for all.
This is a celebration of our increase, and nectar-laden we each are, the sweetness of life within our bellies. The spring honeys fuel us for our journey, spelling out a map of our lands, immersing us in the scent and flavor expression of the plant life we serve. We, the messengers of the flowers.
Sometimes the Queen has done this before and has a memory of flying and floating in the air surrounded by the hive bees. Everyone who is leaving moves toward the open door in high excitement. We pour out of the hive like water.
The bees left behind in the old home are the younger bees who are still in the roles of the house bees — nursery tenders, comb builders, pollen and nectar makers, cleaning bees and guard bees. The bees who depart with the swarm are all foragers, mature bees.
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. We are also in the flurry and whirling, creating a veil for our queen.
As we fly out, each bee has an energetic cushion around it and we have an energetically awareness of all bees around us. During a swarm our senses heighten. Even though we are moving in every direction, each bee is also aware of all the cues of the swarm. Flying in all directions becomes flying in one direction.
And now the Queen emerges into the swarm. 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, 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 the landscape a spot is picked to alight and we all travel to that spot and coalesce into the swarm body. Layers of bees take hold of the bees they land on. The feeling in the swarm as we land is breathy, cheerful, adventurous excitement. When we light on a tree, we sing “all is well, we are in the hands of God.” We land and light 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 gilt swarm, abreast of each and ready to begin anew.
Once we have landed, our scouts tell of places nearby already found. They direct the other scouts with their dance and those scouts visit and come back. Even thought a scout finds a potential new home, and reports back to us with the location, that bee has no sense of individuality with her task.
Before the scout bees leave the swarm body, there is an energetic membrane around the swarm. When they fly off to scout, they don’t disengage from that membrane, they extend it out to the locations they are scouting. The swarm experiences the location directly on the scouting trips. The membrane is like a golden bubble.
The scouts are our senses as they search for our home. They enter each possible home and bring back information of each place’s suitability. When a scout enters a potential hive home, she stands within the cavern and emanates a projection of this place filled with comb and in its full expression of the hive. She is not “looking” at empty space; she is seeing the place as a full working hive. She notes especially the movement of air within, how readily this can be modified to protect the broodiest. Though size in important, the air within is even more so as the brood is our most important concern. So also we want a hidden and defensible entrance and room for growth.
The sound of the vibration inside is important to us, the resonance, because it affects our ongoing communication within the hive. Warmth of the space is important and enough size to expand the colony as it grows. We prefer a fall-away so that anything that should not be upon us can fall away, keeping us clean and healthy. The fall-away is part of our medicine and an important way we maintain the health of the hive.
As each scouts returns, she dances and other scouts visit. This is, for each, a time to envision the working hive and news of the suitability comes back and moves through the swarm. We all have an accumulating image-sense of these possible homes as they are inspected and communicated in the projection details. When enough scout bees extend the membrane to a specific location with a sense of approval, the rest of the swarm simply moves there.
Once inside the new location, each of us adapts a new role and we begin our work.
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.
by Jacqueline Freeman, www.spiritbee.com