Normally, the Colorado bee swarm hotline starts ringing in mid-April. By May 1, a call is coming in every other day. And by the 15th, “somebody opens up the bee floodgates and they start swarming like the devil,” says Beth Conrey, president of the Colorado Beekeepers Association, who fields the calls on her cell phone. But now, something is off. “Swarms (usually) run like clockwork, but this year we’re so far behind I’m going to have to throw out that clock,” she says. She blames the absence of swarms on the cold, wet weather that hit the Front Range in April. But bees around the country are struggling, and everything from weather to pesticides to mites to land use is to blame.
Bee swarms are fascinating and freaky at the same time: The dark masses of buzzing bees cling to trees, chimneys, cars and mailboxes. Sometimes the outline of what they’re swarming on is still visible — a branch wrapped in bees — but other times, the bees hang in blobs that constantly change shape, like in a lava lamp. Beekeepers love catching swarms because it means a new, free hive — and it’s an adrenaline rush. And people who find swarms, who are often a little freaked out, love when beekeepers come remove them. “It kills two birds with one stone,” Conrey says of the hotline. “You have somebody that wants bees, and somebody that has bees, so voila.”
(If you’ve never seen a swarm, check out this guy who crawls under a SUV (or is it a SUbee?), scoops bees up with his hand, and drops them into a new hive (around minute 1:20)).
But in the past few years, the demand for bees has out-paced supply as hives succumb to a slew of mysterious maladies. According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the aptly-named parasitic mite Varroa destructor is the leading killer of honey bees, but the list doesn’t stop there. There’s an immune-suppressing pathogen called Nosema cerena, which makes it harder for bees to fight off infections. There’s the difficult lifestyle of traveling commercial pollinators, bees that are whisked from apple orchards in Washington to almond groves in California to blueberry fields in Maine (to read about the trials of a modern beekeeper, read our fantastic 2005 cover story by Hannah Nordhaus). Pesticides, diet, and modern farming practices that leave few patches of flowers are also to blame. And then there’s the phorid fly, which lays eggs inside bees and turns them into demented lunatics, or “zombees” (bee puns abound here), that abandon their hives and die.
All in all, it means that every year for the past six years, 30 percent of honey bee colonies haven't made it through the winter. And that means there are fewer swarms in the spring.
Bee swarms are an indicator of hive health, because only strong colonies that survive the winter can afford to swarm. Swarming happens when colonies are getting too crowded, Conrey says, so the queen lays a new queen bee egg and splits with half the hive. The swarm lumbers around, stopping in weird places to let the queen rest while scout bees fly out to find a permanent home. “The queen is the fat lady in the opera,” Conrey says. “She’s got this great big butt she’s hauling around with the same size wings as everyone else.” When the scouts find a good place, they come back and perform a dance. The swarm then comes to consensus somehow, and everybody goes to the new home.
That’s where the swarm catchers come in. Swarm catchers guide the bees, who are very docile while swarming, into an empty hive where they will be appreciated by a beekeeper instead of putting themselves at risk of being exterminated — an especially tragic fate given the dire state of honey bees in the U.S. “We are keeping them from moving into a place we might not want them to be,” like your garage or attic, Conrey says.
So if you see a swarm, don’t panic, and definitely don’t kill them! Try to find a local swarm-catcher or bee removal service, and while you wait for them to come, sit back and watch the bees. It’s an opportunity that might not come again.
Emily Guerin is the assistant online editor at High Country News.
Bee swarm on a bike photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Nino Barbieri.