“There seems to be an angry swarm of bees on our street. Not sure if a hive went rogue. Be careful,” the mass email read.
I hoped that the swarm would stay put until I got home, and hoped even more that it would be located somewhere accessible. One of the easiest ways a beekeeper can expand her operation is to capture a swarm; a starter colony with a laying queen and enough workers to re-establish itself readily if transferred to an empty hive.
Honeybees swarm because for one reason or another, living in their current location has become untenable. Most commonly this is because the colony has become too large to be contained in the amount of space available to it. When this happens the bees raise a new queen, and when she hatches the old queen leaves with about half of the workers. The process is fascinating; here’s a beautiful explanation of how and why it happens.
Although swarms look menacing, this is the time when bees are most docile. They have no brood to protect or honey to defend from robbers. In the center of the swarm the precious queen is protected by thousands of workers who surround her while scout bees make forays into nearby territory, looking for a new home.
The swarm in my neighborhood was in the wrong place to be captured, high up on the trunk of an oak tree. And it’s probably just as well. Here’s what old-time beekeepers say about swarms:
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.
This is because when a colony divides the bees that leave go forth empty handed. By this point in the summer there isn’t much time to collect enough food and create enough new bees for a start-up colony to make it through the winter. It’s rare for bees even to swarm this late in the season. Perhaps this indicates that it wasn’t overcrowding but some external force that made this hive perform a last-ditch Hail Mary swarm.
As the bees moved on, so did we. The day after the swarm was spotted we were on to the next incident, involving an unfamiliar gentleman lugging a commercial-sized can of beef stew door to door, wanting to use your can opener. What was this guy’s game? The neighbors were all abuzz.