“Are you home now??” texted my neighbor. ”I think there’s hundreds or thousands of bees making a nest in our pine tree as we speak. It’s crazy!!”
To me, it wasn’t crazy: it was perfect. Two friends had already witnessed this very thing in their yards recently, and I was jealous.
So I texted back: “It’s swarm time!”
By the time I got to my neighbor’s yard, all the bees had gathered in one spot, AS one spot: one big blob of buzzing, crawling, and flying creatures, at about 30 feet up the tree. They looked like a giant dollop of bubbling goo about to drip from a branch.
A honeybee swarm!
I am grateful my neighbor knew what to do: call me,
and I am grateful I knew what to tell her: call a swarm-catcher.
A couple hours later, a beekeeper drove over. He put on protective gear, taped a bucket to a telescoping pole, stood on a ladder, raised the pole up, up, up … and when the pole suddenly dipped, he announced, “The bucket just got heavy.”
Then, he tipped the bucket into a wooden hive he’d placed in the driveway. The bees were free to fly out, but they stayed. This meant the new queen was in there, too: the object of the bee’s affections, and reason for the swarm. Dozens of bees began pacing the box’s landing strip—on the bottom front, like a porch —to “fan the queen’s scent” outward as a call for any stragglers.
What I smelled was honey, which at first I thought was power of suggestion, but it must have come from the equipment. It was a faint, sun-warmed comb smell, not the jolt of honey from a jar.
In Case of Swarm:
The Nashville Area Beekeepers Association keeps an online list of members who are happy to come out, suit up, and take your sudden bees to a new home. (Link to list.)
That’s what the bees are trying to do: find a new home. When hives get big enough, they’ll split in half, and one group will follow a new queen to new digs.
The NABA page explains: “Swarming is how honey bees reproduce at the colony level. The queen will leave the hive along with up to half of the worker bees. The swarm will cluster out in the open, often on a tree limb, while scout bees seek a suitable home. Sometimes a swarm will move on within a few hours, sometimes it may take a few days. When bees are swarming they are the least defensive and not very likely to sting.”
Some catchers charge a fee, some are free; but considering that the next home a swarm might choose could be inside a wall of your own home, I’d say the job is a bargain at any price.
When we asked this beekeeper which time of year was his busiest, he said, “Right now.” Spring.
Now that I’ve seen a honeybee swarm for myself, I can add it to my list of Spring marvels to look and listen for.
There’s a whole lot going on right now—every minute!—as our Nashville year warms, and as the bees swarm.
-“Honey bees [Apis mellifera] are not native to North America. They were originally imported from Europe in the 17th century.” —USGS.gov
-North America has about 3,600 species of native bees, and “more than 90 percent lead solitary rather than social lives, each female constructing and provisioning her own nest without any help from other members of her species.”
—Xerces Society for invertebrate conservation.
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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, Stonecrop Review, The Fourth River and other journals. Her almanac of local urban nature stories is forthcoming.