bee biology swarming

Aswarming we will go

Yesterday produced the first warm and sunny afternoon we’ve had in many days. People all over town were outside working in their yards. I was in the woodshed splitting oak logs for next winter. In the distance I could hear a shop vac groaning and, from the opposite direction, the fire of a pneumatic nail gun.

In the lull between the noises I thought I heard bees. This is to be expected. The kiwi vines to my left were thick with bees and to my right and up the hill are three sets of hives. I kept splitting. A few minutes later—during another break in the clatter—I heard it again. This time I dropped the splitting maul and ran up the path. I had no doubt: one of my hives had thrown a swarm.

From where I had been standing the hum of bees was about 20 to 30 degrees north of where the nearest hives stood. And it was a continuous, urgent sort of sound. Once I arrived at the hives, it was even harder to hear because of the other bees. But I knew a swarm was somewhere in those trees.

I try to prevent swarms but I’m always ready for them. I keep extra brood boxes, cardboard boxes, nets, loppers, and a small limbing saw on hand for just such an occasion. Once I found the swarm I would go and get the proper equipment. It took about five minutes, but I finally saw them.

Now here’s the problem. I always see these cute photos of swarms posted on the Internet or printed in books. These docile, compact mounds are on mail boxes, fence posts, or attached to picnic tables. They are in little hedges, on swing sets, or hanging from car bumpers. All of them are just begging to be dropped into a cardboard box.

Not my bees. No. My bees are always at the very tippy top of some Northwest-style tree. They may as well be in outer space for all the chances I have of retrieving them. I found this swarm in the topmost branch of a skinny little alder that was poking out between two western red cedars. They had to be fifty feet in the air.

Darn! That’s the thanks I get for feeding them honey, syrup, and bee vitamins all winter long! I went back to the house to get my alternate swarm-catching kit, the one consisting of camera and lens.

When I got back to the swarm I realized the lens I selected wouldn’t even begin to do the job. The bees were way too high and strongly backlit against the bright sky. I muttered some choice words and went back to the house again, this time for the big guns: long telephoto lens, tripod, remote shutter, filters. If I couldn’t catch them in a box, at least I’d catch them on film.

This time I knew right where to go for the best shot. I set down the equipment, looked up . . . and they were gone. Not a bee in sight. I shrugged and gave up. I feel sorry for bees that swarm in our modern mite-infested, pesticide-laden, exterminator heavy, freeway-veined landscape. Those bees have a very low chance of survival and it makes me sad to think about it—and I don’t even have a group shot for their clubhouse wall.


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