Why am I surprised that they’ve done it yet again? Swarmed, that is. Walking up to the bee garden two days ago, I was headed toward the Sojourner hive to remove the backboard and give them a bit more room to build into. In only six weeks these busy, gang-buster ladies have nearly filled a large hive with wax, honey, and many, many new baby bees.
This hive is the “sister” to our Rose hive, which came through the winter with us. Rose has sent out five glorious swarms in only six weeks, each one looking more enthusiastic than the last. The first swarm of the season I placed in a new hive and named Sojourner.
I had not even made it up the last steps to the bee garden when I heard that unmistakable roaring hiss that only a swarm of bees can make. Out the entrance of the Sojourn hive they they came flowing, bee over bee, rolling out into an amber wave that rose up into the air around me. I love standing in swarms. It makes me giddy. The sound, the good and sweet smell of the bees, the light glinting like honey off their bodies. It is heaven.
I stood there, head up and arms out, baffled that these maiden bees decided that only six weeks into their new hive venture, they were ready to go forth and multiply. They certainly take after their sister hive! And they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, in no hurry to alight anywhere. Instead, they rose in lazy arcs and loops, floating slowly in the warm, still, afternoon air.
Eventually, I could see that the largest cloud of them seemed to be interested in my neighbor’s huge old cedar tree. Sure enough, after at least 20 minutes of dreamy float time, they gathered into a loosely-shaped heart about 25 feet up in the grand old tree. This was my first up-high swarm and my brain began quickly ticking off methods of bringing them down and getting them into a safe, dry, secure hive.
But let me divert just a bit and explain a bit more about this thing called swarming that honeybees do so grandly. Bees reproduce new bees by having their queen lay eggs every day, all day during the summer months. Bees reproduce new hives or colonies by swarming. In this wonder of nature—as I’ve written about previously here—a hive will send off their old queen and a half to two-thirds of all the bees in the colony out into the sweet air to find a brand new home somewhere and spread their good genes around the neighborhood. Some bees swarm more that others. I believe Rose hive and her offspring, Sojourner, are trying for a world record.
Back at the cedar tree, I bent my neck to see my girls swinging in the breeze far higher than any ladder I had on hand. Should I try and catch them?
I am learning how to work with my bees the way I try and work with all animals: By learning some important basics, and then using and trusting my instincts. Each hive of bees is possessed of its own very unique personality and gifts. Like a dog, or a horse, but in this case, a superorganism. If you ask any beekeeper any question about bees, you will get sixty conflicting responses. This is true about just about anything in life. Certainly anything that matters.
So, with Rose on the wing so often lately, I have been making a point to read anything I can find about swarms, just to see what the experts are saying.
And this seems to be the going intelligence on bee swarming: 1) Swarms are a nuisance to your neighbors, 2)swarms weaken the parent hive, 3)the parent hive goes into a dejected slump after they send out a swarm. 4) swarms are bad. So far, I have found little of this to be true in my experience.
As I also practice in all my relationship with animals, I am assuming my bees to be teachers and healers. And so this month of swarms has really gotten my inner kettle stirring. Why do I find these swarm events so utterly captivating? How is Rose hive acting between swarms? What is the “feel” of the bee garden during this exploding time of creative rebirth? What is my reaction to it all? What is the reaction in the neighborhood to 20,000 bees humming over the yards and sidewalks? What am I to learn from this experience?
A few beekeepers have said to me, “Your hive is weakening with each swarm. You should stop them from doing this or you will lose them.” There are ways to make this stop, if you do certain manipulations inside the hive. And I’ve read that “only very unskilled beekeepers have swarming hives.”
A few weeks ago, I asked my bee-teacher, Jacqueline, about my wildly swarming girls. Could this swarm extravaganza possibly weaken Rose to the point of death? She reflected a moment and answered quietly. “It could. Or it could not. Either way, look what they have done: Their ancestral lineage is now scattered far and wide. They are a success any way it goes.”
Intuitively, I never had the sense that Rose has been “dejected” or weakened from these swarms. Rather, I have felt her energy as exuberant, even celebratory. At the completion of each swarm, as those bees left behind to raise a new queen (and in Rose’s case, 5 new queens in six weeks) dust off their antenna and get back to work, I have imagined them raising tiny champagne glasses in toast to their departed sisters and to themselves for a job well done. Then well-done done again and again.
I have been thinking about the creative urge these past weeks and the many forms it takes. Rose has taught me lessons about this kind of passion. First, no deeply creative act is ever undertaken without risk. In sending out a swarm, there is a possibility that the parent hive will not be able to successfully rear a new queen. In such a case, the hive slowly dies.
As we embrace the creative longing in our own lives, we often find ourselves unraveled—thread by visionary–thread, by fears of failure that strangle us before we even get out of the gate. Behind every newly-dreamed career, every new marriage, every new recipe, painting, new book, new garden, new home, new hope, there is that looming chance of disaster or ridicule. Creativity is not for the weak. Yet creativity, the undertaking of it, can actually help make us strong in courage, in will.
I stand before Rose hive humbled at their passion, their strength, and their willingness to risk all for the sisterhood of bees. I don’t believe I am that brave, but perhaps I can learn to be that brave. Perhaps this is one of the lessons the bees bring to us: Be willing to risk it all for the exhilaration of the creative act.
Because something else Rose has taught me is that creativity brings a kind of energy on its tail that can be grasped by no other means than by acting on your passion. This I have learned by standing in the midst of 20,000 bees and breathing in a kind of rapture that defines fulfilled longing at it’s most powerful.
Will Rose survive to swarm again next year? I would bet money on it. And on Sojourn, too. I would bet money on creative passion any and every time.
About that cedar tree—we did, in a somewhat bumbling manner, manage to get Sojourn’s swarming sisters into a box. They live now at Jacqueline’s farm, and will be named something appropriate to their wanderlust ways. Rose’s sisters have many names now, and live in many different cities. They are called “Brazil,” and “Rosie,” and “Sojourn” and…? And they are all still Rose. Imagine that?
Husband Carter had to take a tumble off a ladder, and I had to take a few stings on the nose and on the eye, but we gathered them up just before a hard and lingering rain set in.
And so far, not one neighbor has seen those thousands of bees in the air. Not one. Doesn’t anyone every look up anymore? Or is the universe making them invisible for their protection?
Swarming bad? Not in my book. It is a creative natural miracle and how can that ever be bad?
Visionary agriculturist Rudolf Steiner likened a swarm of bees to the image of a human soul taking flight at passing, crossing over into another incarnation in a sparkling cascade of amber lights. I love this image, and will hold it close.
May we each send our ecstatic heart on honey-colored wings into a world starving for passion and rebirth. Bee brave!