Tuesday, May 31, 2011

10,000 Maniacs - AKA The Swarm

Interesting fact:  There are roughly 3,500 honeybees in a pound.  This may not be scientifically accurate.  But, it is Google accurate.  That's good enough for me.

Yesterday, I had, I'm guessing, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 maniacs swirl around my body while rising higher and higher into the air before landing waaaay up in the tippy-top of our 30+ year old oak tree.  It was a sight to behold.  It was an experience like none other.  And, by some miracle, I was right smack dab in the middle of it.  Oh, and by maniacs, I mean honeybees.

This is commonly referred to as a swarm.  It happens in the spring.  For the beekeeper, it is not ideal.  Some call it mismanagement.  Some focus on the reduction in honey production that can result.  When a beekeeper declares that her hive has swarmed, words of consolation and then encouragement are offered.  However, for this beekeeper, the swarm was nothing short of amazing.  And, to Mother Nature, it is my gift. 

I can't explain why I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to bear witness to this.  I was agitated.  It was late afternoon and I just had this urge to be outside to enjoy the beautiful day.  I had no plan, no goal, no objective.  I just needed to breathe fresh air.  I meandered through the garden.  Checked on my lazy garden (post about this coming soon).  Peeked on the bee friendly perennials.  Eventually, I found my way over to my bee chair.

My husband gave me the chair five years ago for Mother's Day.  The intention was for me to have a place to relax while keeping my eye on two toddlers playing on the swing set or in the yard.  Five years later, it has become my perch for watching the bees.  In the late afternoon, honeybees do what is called orientation flying.  It's when the new bees head out, test out their wings and their sense of direction and then return to safety.  It's pretty fun to watch.  I noticed that one hive had quite a bit of orientation flying going on and the other was relatively quiet.  I found it curious, but being new to this gig, didn't think that much of it.  Then, at 4:15 pm, past the usual swarm hours of 10 am to 2 pm, there was a mass exodus from the quiet hive.  It surprised me.  They were pouring out from everywhere.  I stood in the midst of it to try to get a closer look at this orientation flying.  It was unlike any orientation flying I had ever seen before.  I looked up and that's when I realized.  It was a swarm.

The sky was literally peppered with honeybees.  I walked-as-fast-as-I-could-without-running into the house, grabbed the camera, inserted the memory card and battery, switched to a zoom lens and hustled right back out the door, stopping briefly at the threshold to declare to myself as well as anyone who would listen, "It's a swarm!  They just swarmed right in front of my very eyes!"

When I got back out, this is what the sky looked like:

The very first photo of the swarm.
This may not seem like much, but this was after many had already landed in their temporary home.  I am guessing the swarm was two to three pounds of honeybees, roughly 10,000 honeybees.

As I stood there in, on the one hand, awe and, on the other, in control enough of my faculties to know that I needed to document this, I was moved.  I don't know how else to say it.  They could have swarmed at any time -while I was at the pool, while I was at the grocery, while I was lying on the sofa reading a magazine.  Yet, it happened while I was right there.  I got to see every single second of it from flow through frenzy to flight then finished.

Once they had landed, I got busy figuring out what to do next.  I consulted experts (Thanks Beekeeper Linda, Cassandra Lawson and Cindy Hodges!) on my next steps.  I did as they suggested, setting up lure hives to try to bring the girls back, rubbing them down with Lemon Pledge (Thanks to my amazing hubby who ran to the store to buy this!) and lemongrass cut straight from the garden because bees are attracted to the scent, inserting old comb and hoping.  I knew it was a long shot, but I wanted to know I had tried everything.  I finally bid the bees goodnight and crawled into bed for a restless night's sleep.

I jumped out of bed early and rushed outside to see what the bees were up to.  They were still there.  The sun was rising on them and some were flying, but mostly they were just clustered on the branch.  Some hours went by and I took my daughter to camp.  When my son and I arrived home, I noticed that the neighbors had a crew at their house to remove a tree that had been damaged by the recent storms.  I was out taking more photos of the bees when they fired up their chainsaws.  Well, that fired the bees up.  They immediately loosened their formation and before I even had a chance to realize what was happening, they were off again.  I tried to track where they went, but it was hard.  My eyes are good, but not good enough to track the bees flying 50-60 feet in the air.  I took a brief walk around the neighborhood hoping that I might see them hanging on a low branch at a neighbor's house, but no.  I said my good-bye to the sky and went back inside to check on the boy.

More hours went by and I got an email from Cindy Hodges, a local beekeeper who does swarm retrieval.  It read, "If your swarm is gone, it just left someone's shrub on Cedarhurst."  Cedarhurst is one street over.  My response, "Yep. It is gone. Left this morning. I tried to find where it went, but couldn't...  ...They are the world's bees now."  Oh, but they were always the world's bees.

As the day has worn on, I have had a song stuck in my head.  I find myself humming it in my mind and aloud.  It's the soundtrack of my day, of the past two days-  'These are Days' by the 10,000 Maniacs.  So fitting because I will have those 10,000 honeybees swirling around in my memory for a long time to come.

These are days you’ll remember
Never before and never since, I promise
Will the whole world be warm as this
And as you feel it,
You’ll know it’s true
That you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you

These are days that you’ll remember
When May is rushing over you
With desire to be part of the miracles
You see in every hour
You’ll know it’s true
That you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you are touched
By something that will grow and bloom in you

These are days
These are the days you might fill
With laughter until you break
These days you might feel
A shaft of light
Make its way across your face
And when you do
Then you’ll know how it was meant to be
See the signs and know their meaning
It's true
Then you’ll know how it was meant to be
Hear the signs and know they’re speaking
To you, to you


  1. Wow. Lovely. And what a remarkable soundtrack :)

  2. soooo awesome Shawn!!!! what a cool picture of what you saw today:) Plus, I LOVE that song..it actually reminds me...funny whenever I hear it of that summer we were 16 and driving around in your white convertible rabbit free and fearless:) Nice to see you feeling a little freedom in this world;)
    good luck!
    Kelly T

  3. I really need to come visit those bees of yours. How cool.

  4. Do they eventually come back home?

  5. Kelly, it has been really awesome! I have had so much fun with it all. And, yes, the song reminds me of those days, too. Those were good days!

    Rebecca, anytime. Email me your phone number and I will text you before I go in next time. If you are around and available, you are welcome to join me!

    Etc., I have heard stories of bees coming back. But, I think they are gone for good. I hope they have found a new home, maybe in a hollow tree in the local nature center or something. I like to think they had a happy ending. Or, I guess a happy new beginning.