What is Swarming?

by Julie Tennis on June 30, 2017

A honeybee colony is like a sea anemone. Each bee is like a cell within a larger organism, some moving food, some removing waste, and some making stings. And when the organism wants to reproduce it splits in two, like the binary fission of a sea anemone.

Individual honeybees hatch from eggs laid by the mother queen. When their numbers have grown so many that they begin to feel crowded in their hive, the worker bees create larger chambers, called swarm cells, for the mother queen to lay eggs in. When the infant queens reach the pupa stage, their cells are capped with wax to protect the metamorphosis occurring within. The colony swarms soon after.

There may have been some confusion in Ancient Greece about the source of honeybee swarms. Around 8 AD, the Roman poet Ovid recorded the Greek story of Aristaeus, the first beekeeper and son of Apollo. Aristaeus’ bees had died and he was wailing over his loss. His mother, Cyrene, sent him to find the prophet Proteus, to learn how to obtain fresh swarms. Proteus told Aristaeus to bury the carcass of a slaughtered ox. As the ox decayed, swarms of bees would fly from it. “The death of one thus produced a thousand lives.” Perhaps the Greeks were just fucking with Ovid, because people of that time clearly understood how colonies reproduced: The Roman, Marcus Varro, (116 BC – 27 BC), wrote “The time when the bees are ready to swarm … generally occurs when the well hatched new brood is over large. … When they are getting ready to fly out or even have begun the flight, they make a loud humming sound exactly as soldiers do when they are breaking camp.”

The bees make a roar when they leave the hive, the beating of thousands of wings filling the air with sound. They shoot out of the hive entrance like water from a hose. Outside the confines of their hive, the bees build a cyclone up to fifty feet across and twenty feet deep. This cyclone turns into a cloud that follows the queen to wherever she’s chosen to land. Then the bees pile on top of and around her, creating a cluster that hangs from the spot where she has landed. Once settled, scout bees go in search of a new home. They return to the cluster to recruit other bees to check out potential sites, giving directions in dance moves. Sometimes they fight, head-bumping each other mid-dance to make their point. Eventually the swarm agrees on a site, and as swiftly as they landed they are gone, moving in to their new home.

That site isn’t always nearby. I followed a swarm for ½ mile last summer, losing it when the road turned and they continued on over the tops of the trees. My friend Bruce caught sight of a swarm leaving a hive on his property a few weeks ago. He followed the bees across a neighbor’s cow pasture, pushing through shoulder-height grass as the swarm sped on to the forest’s edge, about an 1/8th of a mile from the hive. The bees landed 50 feet up an old gnarly cottonwood tree, far out of reach. Sometimes you’ve just got to let a swarm go.

And sometimes swarms get caught in the most unfortunate of ways: A woman at one of my talks described colliding with a swarm on the highway. The bees’ nectar-laden bodies splattered against her windshield and the resulting sticky goo was impossible to wash off with the windshield washer fluid and wiper blades.

In preparation for swarming, departing workers will first gorge themselves on nectar or honey from the hive, to fuel their search for a new home. This is one of the reasons a beekeeper might not want her honeybees to swarm – it reduces the amount of honey in the hive (not to mention the number of bees!). Each bee can hold about 32mg of nectar in her honey crop. A swarm may consist of 30,000 bees. That’s about two pounds of sweet honey, flying through the air.

Though I enjoy catching swarms, I try to manage my colonies so they won’t. I start in early spring by moving the bottom hive boxes to the top of the hives. Over the winter, the colony works its way upward in the hive, leaving the lower boxes empty. After the threat of frost has passed, I move the empty box to the top so that the colony has space to grow. Then I monitor the colony for signs of crowding.

Crowding can occur from too many bees, or too much nectar. If there is too much nectar I will rearrange frames so that there are empty frames between nectar-filled frames (called “checkerboarding”), and I will add a super to the top of the hive. If there are too many bees I will split the colony into two, removing all the frames of brood and eggs into a separate hive. (Two criteria must be in place for this to work: first, you must find the queen and keep her in the original hive. Second, there must be eggs in the frames of brood, so that the bees in the new hive can raise a new queen.)

Managing colonies to avoid swarms is labor intensive, but the effort will help keep you in good graces with your neighbors and provides you with additional colonies that you can use to build your apiary.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on swarms and swarm management, especially what tricks you use to keep your girls from swarming. Please share in the comments below:

The Insect-Hater’s Guide to Loving Bees

by Julie Tennis on May 17, 2016

I’ll admit it, they are scary. Just about everyone in the arthropod phylum are creepy-crawly, bitey-looking things, and bees are no exception. They have huge mandibles (those grabby things on the face that you see in insect-themed horror movies). They have six legs. They move quickly and erratically. And, they sting. But…

They are also amazing, beautiful little creatures. They have antennae that waver around with as much expression as a dog’s ears. They are furry. They clean themselves like cats. And the touch of their six feet against your skin is as light as a breath of air. But these are things you begin to notice after you stop fearing the bees. So, how to get to that place where you can appreciate bees instead of panicking around them?

My Background

When I was 11, my best friend and I had the misfortune of drawing the attention of a colony of stinging insects that had been harassed by many children along a trail near our school. I don’t know how many times Jeff was stung, but I ran screaming from the forest with 14 white-hot, searing points of pain covering my torso. For the next decade I was one of those people who would flee from any small flying creature; my arms waving wildly over my head, my voice a high-pitched squeal.

Choose to Change

The first step from fear to passion came when I was in college, studying environmental education and outdoor recreation. My love for bats allowed me to see how creatures could be seen as good or bad, depending on the attitude of the viewer. I began making the conscious decision to see the good in every creature. It wasn’t always easy. I’m still challenged by ticks and mosquitos. But deciding to appreciate bees was the first step of my journey.

You might accomplish this step by reading about the benefits of bees. Though, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably ready for the next step!

Start Spying
After my sister and I moved away from home, my dad began beekeeping again, something he hadn’t done since childhood. Now that I had decided to like the animals I’d once despised, I was curious – what are they like when they’re not attacking? My dad would plop down with his lawn chair in front of the hives to watch the bees come and go, so I would stand and watch from the porch. He never got stung. That was interesting data – I used to think bees would sting you as much as look at you, but that didn’t appear to be the case. I began to become more comfortable in the presence of bees.

Do you know a beekeeper? Is there a beekeeping club in your area? Are there colonies you can watch from a safe distance? If not, consider watching some of the many YouTube videos on bees and beekeeping to get a chance to watch these critters from a safe distance. As you become more familiar with their baseline behavior, your fears will start to settle and fade.

Get in Close
My curiosity finally got the better of me and I started spending time close enough to my dad’s hives to feel the occasional bee zip by my face. I would crouch down and watch the pollen-laded field bees jostle for a place to land, then run into the slot to bring their groceries to the workers inside. I became engrossed and began wishing I could interact with the bees on a more personal level.

When you reach this point, seek out someone with a bee suit so you can get up close and personal with the bees. Perhaps there’s an apiary that does tours near you, or a beekeeper with an extra suit who is willing to have you watch over her shoulder as she works.

Make it a Necessity

The tipping point for me, between bystander and beekeeper, was when I discovered I’m allergic to sugar cane. I was able to use honey for sweetener, and nearly cleared out my dad’s supply to keep my sweet tooth happy. Eventually, my dad set me up with my first colony so that I could source my own honey.

Your need doesn’t have to be as urgent as mine was. Perhaps you like flowers, or eating fruit. Maybe you have an appreciation for the natural world. Any of these is good reason to have bees around. Without these furry insects (I’m talking native bees as well as honey bees), we wouldn’t have many of the flowers or fruits we’ve come to enjoy. In fact, without our pollinators, the rest of the natural world begins to suffer as well. Humans are not the only creature who relies on pollinated plants for food.

Your Next Step
What are you going to do to become less fearful of bees? Choose one of the suggestions above, or use them to help devise your own strategy. Then come on over to my Facebook page, @BeeMentor.com, to share your story – I would love to hear about your progress!

Wetland Mitigation Site Study

by Julie Tennis on May 12, 2016

For the past 19 years, Astoria High School’s freshman science students have participated in an annual study of the Astoria Airport Mitigation Bank wetland. Lee Cain and Nick Baisley lead this endeavor, coordinating volunteers and students in two days of data collection. This is my second year volunteering as the bumblebee group leader.

Today I had three students, Maddy, Kevin and Quinton. All three students captured a bee. Despite her aversion to flying insects, Maddy caught the largest bee of the day, a Bombus mixtus worker. Quinton, swinging his net like the hammer of Thor, managed to catch a small sweat bee. Kevin was our most focused hunter, standing motionless as he waited for someone to land on each patch of flowers we surveyed. He was rewarded with this new-to-me bee. We’re not sure of the genus, but preliminary research suggests it is in the miner bee family, possibly Trachandrena.

I love being part of this annual event! If you’re interested in supporting the work they’re doing over at the Astoria High School’s science program, consider connecting with Mr. Cain to volunteer your time or make a donation to the program.

Your First Year

March 13, 2016

My focus this year is going towards this course. If you’re in the area I hope you’ll join us!

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Plants for Your Bees – Flowering Quince

March 25, 2015

Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) is a member of the Rose family, cultivated from plants first brought from Japan to Europe in the late 1700’s. The genus went through a few iterations before botanists finally settled on Chaenomeles (which means “split apple.”) Description With space and in full sun, the flowering quince will grow into a […]

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“Where’s the best place to put my beehive?”

June 13, 2014

This is a question I hear often. Here’s what I tell folks: There are five key points to keep in mind when deciding where to place your hive:           • sun exposure           • wind direction           • dampness           • access to water           • neighbors Sun Exposure Beehives don’t have built-in air conditioning or heaters, so the job […]

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