The first Saturday in May turned out to be a hot, humid Saturday - a surefire way to put the cranky in my breakfast. I spent the morning as usual, helping to set up for the four birthday parties we would teach that day, checking on the animals, answering phone calls and emails, and whining about the fact that it was 85 degrees by 9:00 a.m. in May. I left the Visitor Center around lunch time to take sandwich orders and noticed something amiss in the observation hive. My first thought was that the bees were being robbed of their honey and pollen by the larger, stronger outdoor hive - but something wasn't quite the same as the previous robberies. Honey bees were completely filling the clear entrance tube and exiting at an alarming rate (rather than the obvious West Side Story style rumble of a robbing). Outside, a tornado of honey bees swirled just outside the entrance hole, growing by the second as more bees poured from the opening. The frenzy of the bees began to make me feel a little frantic until I suddenly realized I was standing smack in the middle of a swarm of honey bees.
Swarming is a natural way for honey bees to expand their genetic range and make more room in a crowded hive. When they swarm, half of the hive leaves and takes the old queen with them. The remaining bees raise a new queen and start the cycle over again. We knew this hive was going to swarm soon, all of the signs were there. First and most obvious, there were so many honey bees in the hive you couldn't see the frame through them even when foragers were out on nice days. When too many bees crowd a hive, ventilation is a problem. Condensation on the inside of the glass was another hint that this hive would swarm. The surefire sign of an impending swarm though is the development of queen cells along the bottom of the frames. Queens are bigger bees with a more developed reproductive system so they have to have bigger cells to form in and more nutrient rich food than the other brood. These cells look like peanuts and if you can get a glimpse inside, the larvae are literally floating in a bed of royal jelly.
Knowing swarming bees are relatively gentle as they have no honey or brood to protect, I stood in the middle of them unprotected without fear of stinging. The bees continued to fly as if I wasn't there, bumping into me occasionally and buzzing so loudly I couldn't hear my own laughter. At some point, maybe a few minutes later, the realization that I had no idea what to do punctured, but did not dampen, my excitement. I rushed inside to call a more experienced beekeeper and was advised on the ways of catching a swarm. By the time I finished with him and called several staff members to come and witness, about ten minutes, the bees had already completed their exodus and had clustered on a low branch of the magnolia tree beside the Visitor Center (which is terribly convenient for us, especially considering my friend a few miles away had a swarm the same day that clustered 30 feet up in a hemlock tree). While they are in a cluster they keep the queen in the middle and scouts fly out to find a suitable home. Several scouts fly in all directions and come back to report their findings. They give this report by waggle dance. Once a bee has convinced enough scouts (after much waggling and trips to the new place) that their find is the best find, the cluster flies again to set up their new home. Our goal was to make sure they thought our hive box was the best real estate in town.
We had heard that you could stick your bare hands into a cluster of swarming bees without fear of stings so of course we all had to try. We rounded up a step ladder, and much to the amazement of on looking nature center visitors, took our turns gently pushing our hands through the mass of solid, but giving, bees. This was not simply hundreds of bees we were looking at and feeling, it was one giant being made up of smaller ones. Once inside, many bee feet, antennae, tongues, and fuzz tickled the hair on our hands. Honey bees prefer to be in the 90s degree-wise and the heat inside the cluster was notable. We took picture after picture of each of us with the bees - standing under the cluster, hands in the cluster, in the tree with the cluster - for bragging rights on our Facebook pages. Finally it was time to attempt to convince these bees that our waiting hive box was prime land.
We started with Colin holding the hive box above his head while I ascended the step ladder to scoop some bees. Did I mention we were doing this with bare hands? I gently pulled a scoop of bees off of the cluster, paused a second for a picture, and dropped the ball into the waiting hive. Claire then stepped up to do the same but something didn't please one of the bees and she received a sting on the tip of her finger. We removed the stinger quickly and gave her plantain to chew and pack on the sting site. Several minutes later she reported feeling good and hours later she couldn't even tell she had been stung. The bees were getting a little rowdy at this point so Colin donned a pair of gloves, we got a cart for the hive box, and Colin began scooping and dumping bees into the box until we noticed little bee abdomens high in the air, emitting a scent to call the remaining bees down. We left the box where it was and within the hour, all of the bees were settling inside. We waited until after dark to be sure all of the bees were tucked in for the night and rolled the hive out to the bee yard.
Without a doubt, standing amongst hundreds of swirling, buzzing bees was one of the highlights of my life. Just as working the bees can bring me peace, standing inside this whirlwind brought me Christmas morning joy that could not be shaken by 85 degrees by 9:00 a.m. in May.