Spring and the bees are swarming. And as there is a small field full of hives just over our wall, they’re passing through our garden as they find new homes for colonies.
The first swarm was alarming. A large garden full of many tens of thousands of bees swirling in unison, in a dark cloud round and round like a dervish. And the noise! A deep penetrating hum, a menacing buzz, that can be heard way beyond the confines of our garden.
After half-an-hour or so the swarm coalesces into a big clump, a rippling, shimmering large fruit hanging from a branch in one of our overgrown bushes. The next day the lump of bees is still hanging, but more quietly and with less perceptible movement. A day later and no sign of any bees at all.
The second and third swarms passed through barely noticed, apart from a brief warning to the builders… be careful down the garden, there’s another swarm.
To the internet to find out what’s happening: It’s been happening since the beginning of bees, it is not dangerous and it is positively good for bees. The only real problem in these days is that industrialised bee keeping does its best to prevent swarming in favour of maintaining honey production… to the detriment of the health of the bee population. Older queens are removed and new virgins forcibly bred after as little as two years, instead of the more normal four to five in a bid to keep thousands of bees working hard in the hive. Capitalist bee exploitation and abuse!
To us it all looks spontaneous, a sudden arrival of bees from nowhere. But for the bees it takes planning. Bees swarm when an existing colony is becoming too crowded.
The existing Queen lays eggs in six or seven cells deep in the hive, and the nurse bees feed the resulting larvae the intensely nutritious and bee-life changing nectar we call royal jelly. One of these larvae will become the future virgin Queen of the remaining colony. The first to pupate will kill the remaining larvae. If two larvae pupate simultaneously, the aspiring queens will wrestle to the death!
The ageing Queen’s nurses then change her diet and deliberately thin her down ready for the swarming flight.
I assume the swirling dervish of the swarm at its most dramatic is all about defending the vulnerable Queen as she leaves the hive and makes a short flight to where — over the wall to our garden — she will sojourn pending the scouts finding her a new palace.
Once she is attached securely to a branch and guarded by her immediate entourage, the swarm follows and forms its protective clump around her. The bees have gorged themselves on honey and are good for a reported three days.
Scout bees, the most experienced foragers, go far and wide up to a kilometer to search out a new home. Each returns and dances to describe their findings and the location of what they’ve discovered . If the dance is enthusiastic, fellow scouts will go off to check. Once a majority of the scouts are dancing enthusiastically to describe the same location, then it is decided. Bee democracy. The swarm leaves.
Sadly, we have yet to witness a swarm move on, guiding and guarding their Queen upon whom all their futures depend. Once in the new hive, the poor girl again becomes the focus of the drones — fertile male bees — and she fattens up and starts to lay the eggs in the hexagonal cells to produce tens of thousands of new bees, each with a specific role.
And how do they communicate? Well, I don’t know, but apparently much of it is sorted by pheromones, smell. Amazing.