Gathering swarm: Local beekeepers reflect on an unusual spring

It’s been a busy spring for local beekeepers like Brooke Savage, who is hoping to prevent swarming by splitting hives before the bees feel overcrowded.  Image: Eze Amos It’s been a busy spring for local beekeepers like Brooke Savage, who is hoping to prevent swarming by splitting hives before the bees feel overcrowded. Image: Eze Amos

While we humans have been preoccupied this spring, with pandemic worries and urgent national conversations, the natural world has seen other dramas unfold that most of us haven’t even noticed. Unless you’re a beekeeper, you wouldn’t know that this has been a very odd spring for honeybees.

Carrie Meslar is the managing director of the Elysium Honey Company, and she says that this year, the company’s beekeepers have reported an uptick in the number of swarms—big groups of bees leaving a hive to seek out a new home base. “They’ve never seen anything like this,” says Meslar.

A swarm happens when bees feel overcrowded in their hive. The queen leaves, taking thousands of the workers with her, and they gather in a bristly bunch on a tree or a fence post. To learn about what happens next is to gain some serious respect for the complexity and intelligence of these tiny and intensely social creatures.

“They send out scouts,” Meslar explains. “These bees go out and look for a good location for the hive.” Upon returning, the scouts communicate through dances about what they’ve found, and then—(get this!)—“a voting process takes place amongst the bees. When they reach an agreement, tens of thousands of bees leave to go and settle in a new place.”

It’s astounding, and on its own, it’s a “natural and good process,” says Meslar. “It means the colony is robust and healthy.” For beekeepers, say Karen and Ken Hall (both officers with the Central Virginia Beekeeping Association), swarming is “largely a management issue”—something to be avoided with proper attention to one’s hives.

“You want to mitigate it because you could lose half of your bees,” says Meslar. The departing swarm not only represents a loss of workforce; it actually takes away quite a bit of honey, transported inside the bees themselves. So, ideally, beekeepers hope to prevent swarming by splitting hives before the bees get crowded.

Ken Hall says there’s no hard data on whether this really has been a big year for swarming, but it’s plausible because of the weather patterns we experienced this spring. Warm temperatures in the first three months of 2020 meant some things bloomed early. “The red maple bloom was 12 days earlier than last year,” he says. But then the weather cooled and later blooms, like tulip poplar and black locust—both major food sources for bees—slowed down. In the gap between those two events, bees were very busy reproducing and gathering pollen and nectar, and hives may have gotten crowded, like a family house that’s suddenly too full of kids and all their stuff.

If bees do swarm, keepers try to capture them by gently brushing the bees into a box. That might sound death-defying, but Karen Hall says bees in a swarm pose very little danger to people. “A swarm has no colony and nothing to protect, so they are really very docile,” she says. Euphoric, even, because they’re full of honey.

The key to the operation is to capture the queen. “We watch the bees,” says Ken Hall, “and as soon as we have the queen in the box we can start to tell she’s there. They produce a pheromone as a homing scent, and the bees have to raise their abdomens high in the air to expose the gland. When we have the queen in, all of a sudden there are a lot of bees around the entrance with their abdomens raised.”

It must be a triumphant feeling for a beekeeper when that happens, but the bees aren’t aware that their colony has just been saved from an untimely demise. “A colony requires human intervention to survive,” says Karen Hall. “Effectively, your feral colonies succumb in about 14 months.”

The murder hornets—headline-grabbing, invasive species with the ability to wipe out hives, currently found only in the Pacific Northwest—are the latest potential threat to wild bees, but Meslar says they aren’t a huge worry for local beekeepers. “There are a number of simple methods we can implement to keep hives safe. The most common is a cage that sits at the exit. The holes are big enough so that bees can come and go, but it prevents the hornets from getting access into the hive.”

A more serious problem is the Varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on adult bees and larvae, making them vulnerable to certain viral diseases. Then there’s the issue of pesticides. Whether sprayed on a large scale over commercial orchards, or spritzed by homeowners onto one dandelion at a time, they can be carried back to hives by industrious bees.

The upshot is that people and honeybees need each other. They pollinate our food crops, and we safeguard their colonies—in an intricate dance, all happening amidst the unpredictability of climate change. “From year to year right now, the intensity of the differences is much more marked than it was 10 years ago,” says Meslar. “None of the years are middle of the road; everything is sort of extreme.”

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