It’s been a crazy time up in my Beethedral this spring. We’ve had very wet weather ever since March, and I hoped that the bees would want to begin swarming from my four over-wintered hives as soon as they got a sunny day.
Well, they did. It’s been swarm city here at MillHaven for the past week. Some of the swarms have been business-as-usual, as my hives began pouring out exuberant, clouds of singing bees. Two of the swarms, I gathered into new skeps I wove over the winter. But the following swarms have left me scratching my head, perplexed…
Once a hive swarms, she usually settles down for about 10 days while the new virgin queens in the hive finish pupating. It takes them about 8 days after the swarm has left for the new queen bees to hatch. The colony needs a new queen, as the old queen heads off with the new swarm. The bees hedge their bets, so a parent hive makes anywhere from 4-18 or more new queens, only one of which will become mother to the colony.
If you put your ear to the colony, which I do often, you can sometimes hear the new queens begin piping and singing as they begin hatching. The sound is otherworldly, like whale song, owl cry, and coyote howl all rolled into one. Once that song begins, a bee tender can expect more swarms any day.
Once the new queens hatch, often the hive will send off several more smaller swarms called “cast” or “secondary” swarms with these new virgin queens, hopefully spreading their genes out widely in their territory. So I’ve been listening for the queen song eagerly these days.
But my Gobnait hive and Wing hive decided not to wait for new queens. They each launched two more swarms before the new queens hatched. I tried to imagine a few reasons why a hive would do this, because if they fly with no queen, they cannot survive. As Gobnait and Wing took to the air, within 15 minutes of each other, I watched them in utter wonder—as in, “I wonder what in the world they’re doing?”
I tried ushering Gobnait’s new swarm them into my one remaining skep. They flew back out and landed on one of my bait hives that I set to lure swarms. A few moments later, both the swarms had flown off yet again and–shockingly–joined together, which is simply unheard of. They settled commingled on the tallest branch of my neighbor’s maple tree, far out of reach. In a half-hour, they took wing again and spiraled up into the sky and out of sight. Meanwhile, back in the skep and the bait hives two small cluster of bees remained. A third small cluster had settled into one of my unused wooden hives across the yard.
I left them all where they had landed, and spent the rest of the evening wondering why they had left the parent hive in the first place, with no queen. Perhaps such queenless swarms fly off to relieve overcrowding in the home hive. Perhaps they hope to find a hive that will let them move in. Maybe they will settle into a new home and begin making comb and gathering nectar, hoping to attract a new small swarm that has a queen. Or do they just fly confidently into the unknown, trusting in miracles and the goodness of life.
That night, before I went to bed I took a flashlight up into the Beethedral and put my ear against Gobnait and Wing, and heard the first sounds of the piping new queens. Why had the swarm not waited just a couple of more days?
The next day, I roamed, perplexed, from one cluster to the other wondering if there was anything I should do for them. Or was my highest calling and greatest challenge to just let them be and keep musing on this mystery? I watched very closely my anxious need to do something. Often in my life, I’ve had the tendency to do something, anything, instead of waiting to see what reveals itself. For the morning hours, I decided to let them be, and to learn what they had to teach me.
It turns out I didn’t have to wait for long. Later that afternoon, I was standing in the Beethedral with my friends Angel and Thea, helping to set up a live-streaming “bee cam” so I could see if my hives were swarming if I’d left the house for an errand. Honestly, during swarm season, I am completely tied to my backyard for about 10 weeks.
As we were aiming the angle of the camera, Angel looked down and said, “My, that’s a big bee…” I looked over to where he was peering at his feet. And there was the largest, fattest queen bee I’ve ever seen in my yard. She was lumbering regally across the mulch that bedded the Beethedral floor. Instinctively, I reached down and cupped her in my hands. My head was spinning. What to do? What to do now?
The decision came quickly. I asked Thea if she could help me gather the small clusters of bees from the old wood hive and the bait hive. We could place them in the new skep with the third cluster and offer them this new queen. To be sure they would welcome her, I snatched a few of the clustered bees in my fingers and added them and the queen to a mason jar. The queen hurried over and begged food from the other bees, who complied. We had a team! And this team had a chance at survival!
It didn’t take Thea and I very long to feather the two clusters of bees into the new skep, where they were welcomed by their sisters. Then, I uncapped the jar and released the queen. As we were gathering our bee gear, I turned to Thea and said, “They have hope now.”
Ask me what the name is that I lettered in black paint on the face of this skep months ago, and I’ll gladly tell you, as the angels and bees giggle all around me. Her name was–is–Hope.
I don’t know how you manage. Bees are more work than I ever imagined, but thank heavens we have them, and dedicated bee keepers too.
Boy, sometimes, I wonder how I manage, too!!