Monday, June 1, 2009

Swarm Stories

One of Nature’s most interesting reproductive behaviors is honeybee swarming. Honeybees are very social animals and some experts have even suggested that a colony of honeybees can be more properly thought of as a “super-organism”, collectively, rather than individual bees. Honeybees cannot exist for long on their own. They must belong to a colony. Of course, reproduction of individual bees does occur but always for the purpose of restocking the colony with functional individuals who play a role in the bigger “organism”, the colony.

Reproduction of the colony occurs by swarming. One egg-laying individual (a queen), several thousand workers (sterile females) and a few fat fellows (drones) split off from the established colony, leaving behind a new queen and most of the workers. The swarm is seeking a new home, preferably a high and dry hollow space. Hollow trees, chimneys and voids in walls of buildings are fine.

Swarms always make a brief lay-over after leaving the hive and before arriving at their final destination. This is usually a tree limb, shrub, mailbox, car bumper or fence post. That’s when it gets interesting, even for people who usually don’t give insects a second thought. There is nothing like a 3 pound mass of bees to get folks excited. And the take-off and landing is bizarre… a cyclone of stinging insects, moving with purpose.

Most people who get to see a honeybee swarm arrive or depart feel fortunate to have witnessed it. It’s hard to describe. You kind of have to bee there to appreciate it.

Practical matters… honey bees in a swarm are not inclined to sting. They are most interested in getting settled into a permanent home. Most swarms remain at the lay-over spot less than a day.

So, if you encounter one, just enjoy it and soon they’ll be gone. If they end up staying more than 2 days, find a beekeeper to remove it. In fact, beekeepers are almost always interested in picking up swarms, provided they are reasonably close to the ground (less than 10 feet high). Beekeepers provide good homes to wayward bees. Usually, by the time you contact the beekeeper and he makes his way to the swarm, it has moved on. In any event, swarms are generally harmless and temporary. It doesn’t do much good to try to make them do what you want unless you are a beekeeper or trained exterminator. Certainly spraying them with water or insecticides is not productive.

Swarm season in Pennsylvania lasts from about mid-May until mid-June. Enjoy it while you can. Click on swarm picture above for a close-up look.

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