Hey, Honey - What's the Buzz?

The Swarm

One day in late May I looked out the window and saw an enormous thick cloud of bees in front of our barn. What should I do?! Shut the windows and cower? Call the exterminator? Call the nearest beekeeper? I called the nearest beekeeper. (He was just in the next room.) If you haven't got the beekeeping bug, you might not be pleased to have a swarm of bees in your yard, but to my family, it means honey!

And more than that, it might be a sign that honeybees in our area are developing resistance to the epidemic of mites that has severely reduced the honey bee population in the US. Nice if you want to walk barefoot through clover without being stung, but not good for honey or pollination!

A Plague of Mites

The beautiful swarm

My husband, Ed, used to keep bees - just one or two hives. The first year we harvested several gallons of delicious honey. But then, (Insert ominous music here), the killer mites struck. There is medication you can give the bees, but it doesn't always do the trick. (Are you imagining dosing each bee with a tiny eyedropper? Nope! You just put the medicine in the hive, and the bees do the rest.) My husband lost all of his little antennaed friends. He ordered more bees (the local postal workers were thrilled when they arrived in the mail!), but those died as well.

Some Welcome Visitors

Last June some honeybees moved into an empty hive that had been gathering dust in the barn. They just showed up one day and made themselves at home. They fly in and out of the barn all day long, peacefully co-existing with humans and animals. If you happen to walk through their main flight path, one might accidentally crash into your head, bounce off, and go on its way. They're really very peaceful critters.

There They Go!

If you're not familiar with bee biology, when a hive gets over crowded, the queen and about half the workers will move out and search for a new home. These bees constitute a swarm. The rest of the bees stay in the original hive and raise a new queen by feeding some of the baby bees royal jelly. The swarming bees will clump together, usually in a tree, until their real estate agents find a good place for them to live. If a beekeeper can catch the swarm, he's got another hive of bees to make honey for him!

Catch Those Bees!

There's an old beekeeper saying: "A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon, but a swarm in July isn't worth a fly," meaning an early swarm will have time to be fruitful, multiply, and make lots of honey before winter. A later swarm isn't as likely to thrive and produce honey for the hungry beekeeper. I had to look up what a swarm of bees in May is worth. Turns out it's worth "a cow and a bundle of hay". Hmm. I haven't checked the relative market values of cows and spoons, but I think a cow's worth is pretty good. Which brings us back to the day I looked out the window and noticed our barn bees were swarming.

Preparing the hiveEd scurried around preparing a hive for them while I kept an eye on the swarm. It settled near the top of a 30-foot oak tree, on the end of a thin branch which bent down under their weight.

Don't Try This at Home! (Especially the Ladder Part!)

Ed set the empty hive nearby, and we all watched while the scout bees checked it out and reported back to the swarm. They probably would have moved in eventually on their own, but Ed wanted to help them along. He spread a sheet in front of the hive and went to get a ladder and saw. The branch the bees were on wasn't very near the trunk, so we had to lean the ladder against some rather wobbly outer branches. I tried to hold it steady while Ed climbed up with the saw. He cut off the bees' branch and brought it down the ladder, bees and all. Gently, he laid the branch on the sheet.

Waiting for the bees to get the ideaThe bees probably would have crawled off the branch and into the hive eventually, but Ed wanted to help them along. He started cutting off spare leaves and bits of branch until it was down to just one stick with the bees on it. They still didn't get the hint. Apparently subtlety is lost on bees. Ed really wanted to help them along and get them snug in the hive before dark. Abandoning all pretense at subtlety, he picked up the stick and shook it until all the bees were on the sheet. At last the bees took the hint and started crawling up the sheet into the hive. Finally we could relax. Until…

Here We Go Again!

A couple of days later Ed heard buzzing, looked up… and there it was. Another swarm clustered in the top of a tree. Ladder. Saw. Sheet. Now we have 3 hives full of honeybees! Ed says he might not look up anymore this year, especially if he hears buzzing.

Fiction with Bees

The Honey Thief by Elizabeth Graver.
The summer that eleven-year-old Eva is caught shoplifting (for the fourth time), her mother, Miriam, decides the only solution is to move out of the city to a quiet town in upstate New York. There, she hopes, they can have the normal life she longs for. But Miriam is bound by a past she is trying to forget… It is only when Eva meets a reclusive beekeeper that she and her mother can find their way back to each other, and can begin life with renewed promise. A haunting novel of memory and desire, The Honey Thief reveals the healing power of friendship and the ineradicable bonds of mother and child.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
Set in South Carolina in 1964, The Secret Life of Bees tells the story of Lily Owens, whose life has been shaped around the blurred memory of the afternoon her mother was killed. When Lily's fierce-hearted "stand-in mother," Rosaleen, insults three of the town's fiercest racists, Lily decides they should both escape to Tiburon, South Carolina--a town that holds the secret to her mother's past. There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters who introduce Lily to a mesmerizing world of bees, honey, and the Black Madonna who presides over their household. This is a remarkable story about divine female power and the transforming power of love--a story that women will share and pass on to their daughters for years to come.(amazon.com)

Books about Bees and Honey

Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation by Tammy Horn.
"…an enlightening cultural history of bees and beekeeping in the United States…. A varies social and technological history from the colonial period, when the British first introduced bees to the New World, to the present, when bees are being used by the American military to detect bombs." from book jacket

Bees of the World by Christopher O'Toole and Anthony Raw.
"This detailed but highly readable book covers all aspects of bees, including their diversity, behavior and life cycles. It describes the solitary bees as well as the highly social ones, the flower-bee relationship, the special role of male bees and the significance of associated insect species."
(Book jacket)

A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell.
A charming book about the author's personal experiences with beekeeping in the Ozarks and in getting to know her neighbors who call her "the bee lady". Informative and entertaining.

Following the Bloom: Across America with the Migratory Beekeepers by Douglas Whynott.
"A portrait of … the beekeepers who move their livestock - billions of bees - around the country in search of nectar…Rented honeybees do virtually all of the pollination on America's fruit, vegetable, and seed crops, thus the migratory beekeepers are a crucial segment of the agricultural economy."
(Book jacket)

Hive Management: A Seasonal Guide for Beekeepers by Richard E. Bonney.
"For the practicing beekeeper who needs more information, or for the serious novice who wants to start out right, Hive Management offers sensible advice to help keep your honey bees thriving."
(Book jacket)

Robbing the Bees: a Biography of Honey by Holley Bishop.
"Combining passionate research, rich detail, and fascinating anecdote, [this book] is an in-depth, sumptuous look at the... most delectable food in the world. Part biography, part history,…also a celebration, a love letter to bees and their magical produce."
(Book jacket)

The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting by Eva Crane.
A comprehensive work which explores the history of beekeeping from prehistoric times to the present all over the world. Includes reproductions of old woodcuts, engravings, and even rock paintings showing the many ways humans have worked with bees through the ages.

Web Links

Bee-ginners info has frequently asked questions about bees, swarming, beekeeping, and honey.

Honey.com has a site geared to kids contains the basic facts on honey bees, honey trivia, recipes for kids

The Wikipedia article about honey bees is excellent and has links to related articles on pollination, honey, beeswax, honey bee communication, predators of honey bees, and more.

Bee beard photos shows pictures of people wearing beards made of honey bee swarms. The things some people do for fun!

Photos appearing with this article are supplied courtesy of the Criscuolo-DeButts family.