Beekeeping! It’s a great hobby. And if your bees do well (which isn’t a guarantee), they’ll eventually get a bit crowded.

When that happens, they rear up some new queens by feeding eggs a special substance called “royal jelly.” (Tasty as it sounds, you probably wouldn’t want any, as it comes from a bee’s head–oh, wait, so does honey.)

queen cells
See that thing hanging down? There’s a new queen growing inside. Photo by Migco.

Then the old queen and half of the worker bees leave the hive in search of a new home.

They swarm.

A swarm of bees looks terrifying! Thousands of them in a big clump–it seems like you’re under attack!

Er. No.

Swarming bees are searching for a new home. Because they don’t have a hive to defend, they’re unlikely to sting, and they have absolutely no interest in you.

bee swarm
These bees are looking for a new home. Photo by Sid Mosdell

Scout bees check out potential places, using a special dance to report back with their findings. Once a good spot is located, the swarm relocates there.

All those other bees? They’re just hanging out around their queen until they get word it’s time to move on. (The queen releases a pheromone–a scent–that keeps the bees close.)

Now as a beekeeper, you don’t want your bees to move on. You want them to settle in one of your hives. So when a hive swarms, you don your protective outfit, get some helpers and go collect those bees.

How? Well, in my experience, one person stands under the swarm with a hive box, while another gives the branch a good shake, hoping the queen and enough workers land inside that they’ll settle.

Somehow, I always wound up as the person holding the box.

No, I don’t have pictures (this was in the days before everyone had a camera phone, and we were far too busy to be snapping photos). But you can imagine what it’s like.

It’s warm outside, a bit sweaty under all those layers (even if they are white). You’ve got a heavy wooden box balanced on your head and you’re just waiting for the bees to land. What’s taking so long? You peer out to see what’s going on and realize they’re about to go. You duck back under, bracing yourself for impact.

And then it comes–thousands of bees crash land on top of you, the weight knocking you down for a second, the buzzing everywhere at once. (But don’t worry, the bees are confused, not angry.)

You set the box down and get a lid on it, hoping you got the queen. Because if you did, the workers will begin to build comb and the colony will stay. But if you didn’t, you’ve lost the swarm.

It was sort of like this, but with a much bigger drop before they landed on my head, er, in the box.

Life’s an adventure!

Alison’s adventures: When bees swarm
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