There is nothing scarier on Saturday morning cartoons than being chased by a swarm of angry bees.
You’ve seen it so many times. They usually emerge from a round nest hanging in a tree after someone pokes it with a stick; a huge and furious mob intent on pursuit of the one who dared disturb them. That round nest is a hornets nest, not a beehive, and those vicious flying bugs that come pouring out to chase the unfortunate character are hornets, not bees.
It’s funny to me how often we think of that terrifying scene when we consider bees. But, the truth is that, while you can make bees angry and get stung, and while you can see bees flying about in a seemingly angry swarm, you will likely never be chased by an angry swarm of bees, even if you try.
I’ve been writing about bees a lot lately because it is the time of year for them to be buzzing about and doing their bee things, and for us beekeepers to be buzzing about trying to manage their bee things as much as we can.
One bee thing that has come up several times this week is swarms, and it has me thinking about this often misunderstood process that honey bees instigate purely to divide and increase their population in the world.
When bees are swarming, it can be extremely dramatic, especially if you’ve never seen it before. The air will fill with thousands of bees flying willy nilly in what looks to be complete chaos! The roar is loud, just as you remember from those cartoons, and it feels really scary to be anywhere close. You are sure that you are about to be dive-bombed, just like in the cartoons.
But, swarming bees are actually very docile, even if they don’t appear to be when they are whizzing about above your head. They have a singular goal and couldn’t care less about you, but it is really hard to tell it.
You see, bee hives swarm as part of a very natural and normal process of dividing their community to allow for two larger colonies to be formed. It is the way that they increase their population. Cats have kittens, chickens lay eggs, but bees cast off a swarm.
In the springtime, if a colony feels they have gotten to be a bit too large for their current home, they will decide it is time for the queen and around half of their group to head out into the world to look for a new place.
In order to prepare for this adventure, they start raising several new queen bees, feeding royal jelly to some eggs laid in specially shaped cells that will allow for the larger size and length of the baby queens.
The bees will also stop feeding the queen so that she can become light enough to fly. When she is in laying mode they feed her quite heartily to fuel her important work and she becomes so heavy that she couldn’t possibly carry herself on the trip to a new home.
The colony will also start filling in cells that she might normally use for laying eggs with nectar and pollen, reducing the area that she will feel inclined to populate.
When the new queen cells are capped so there is sure to be a new queen emerging in a few days, the old queen and her fellow travelers will head out into the world. Prior to the journey, scout bees have been out looking for potential new homes or landing spots.
They don’t usually travel terribly far to get to their first stop, which may or may not be the place they hope to stay. Often, you will see them flying around like crazy and then simply landing all together on a branch in a tree where they will cluster together with the queen safely held in the center of the bunch.
It is fascinating to watch the cloud of racing bees come together in one spot. You really can’t imagine how they know to do it. Bees often communicate using pheromones that allow them to direct the rest of the colony to specific actions, including the exact spot that the queen and rest of the bees will come to rest.
I’ve been contacted about several swarms this week and even watched as one played out in my own backyard. Whenever I get to watch the process I can’t help but think about what must be going through their minds.
When we find ourselves in need of a new place to call home, we usually have a checklist of characteristics that we are looking for, and bees do, too. We might need a larger or smaller home, one close to good schools or nearer to family. We might need to move quickly for a new job or other change in our lives.
There are so many factors that can come into consideration for us humans, but the bee checklist is much shorter.
Can we build an appropriate size honeycomb within this cavity that will allow us to store food and raise new bees to keep our colony alive?
With fewer trees around that are old enough to provide such a dwelling, bees are often finding appropriate spaces in attics and walls of houses and other buildings, which doesn’t fit so well with our plans for those areas.
If you see a swarm, call a beekeeper as soon as you can so that we can come collect them into a hive and give them a proper home that provides them the best chance for survival. You can find a beekeeper through your local bee club or extension office. But, most importantly, don’t be afraid or start spraying them with chemicals! They are just bees, looking for a new place to live, not rabid cartoon hornets looking to attack, and they are a very important part of our world!