The Mind of a Honeybee

By Cathy Sabol

Last September, as I was working the soil in my cold frame to plant some lettuce, a low hum in a nearby autumn olive tree distracted me. Though its white flowers had long since turned to red fruit, the tree was quivering with bees. What could be attracting them? Brushing back the branches, I saw an irregular form, about the size and shape of a football, hanging 8 feet above the ground. On closer inspection, I realized that the strange humming and pulsing form was a swarm of honeybees!

Honeybees swarm because their hive has become overcrowded, and in preparation for swarming, a new queen bee is produced. Like two chefs in a kitchen, two queens cannot coexist in one hive, so the older one leaves, taking about half the hive's population with her. I had seen swarms before on fence posts and in hollow trees, but never any so late in the season, and never so far into suburbia.

The first frost date here was a mere three weeks away. Typically, the swarming bees would have only a limited supply of nectar from the parent hive in their honey stomachs. The scout bees, which had been looking for suitable lodging, expressed their findings to the loitering swarm by the vigor and choreography of their dance. Within 20 minutes, the swarm could have been gone, but it stayed.

Rampant suburban development may be creating new housing for people, but it is destroying potential bee homes. The scout bees apparently couldn't find a better home than my autumn olive tree, because the worker bees began to draw out honeycomb on the exposed branch. The tree had nothing more to recommend it than a southern exposure, but the bees were determined to take advantage of the sun and prepare their winter hive there.

In mornings after a light frost, I would hesitantly check the swarm's condition. They'd be packed tightly together, looking damp and lethargic. Nevertheless, they were alive, gradually unfurling and wiggling awake as the sun rose; they would take wing when the temperature reached about 55° F.

As a fruit and vegetable gardener, I have always respected honeybees and even spent some time learning to keep them, so I wasn't about to destroy this hive. As the shape of the swarm enlarged, I began to phone beekeepers recommended by the cooperative extension service. Though often anxious for new stock, beekeepers are not very keen on rescuing a swarm in the autumn because it must be fed sugar water all winter, its chances of survival are iffy, and it tends not to make surplus honey its first season. An old English proverb sums up the beekeeper's attitude:

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

It was late October when I finally found a beekeeper willing to collect the swarm. Retrieving the swarm was easy. The veiled-and-gloved beekeeper snipped off intervening branches and smoked the swarm lightly. Bees react to smoke as people might: they think their home is on fire, so they try to locate the source of the emergency and save their prized possession, in this case the honey. The activity distracts them from what the beekeeper is doing to the hive. To remove them from my tree, the beekeeper simply lopped off the branch holding the bees. We then saw that during their six-week stay, the bees had constructed three, approximately 7-inch, hexagonal-celled combs, a virtual high rise of honey.

A swarm of honeybees can be collected in anything that will keep them confined and allow them fresh air, from a burlap sack to a cardboard box. The beekeeper gently placed the bee-covered combs in a box and taped it closed.

Although I was glad to know that the bees in the hive had a new home, I worried about the ones left behind. I was relieved to learn that they could return to their original nest. Having witnessed the birth of a new honeybee colony, I'll never again be able to consider these humble creatures casually.

Cathy Sabol gardens and writes in Herndon, Virginia.

Photography by National Gardening Association

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