"I saw the swarm when I looked out the window," said Vacaville resident Lynn Starner. She watched dozens of bees buzzing toward the cluster.
Flowering plum branches sheltered and shadowed the swarm's temporary home, while the intrepid bee scouts searched for a permanent one.
A moving swarm is as fascinating as it is remarkable. "The casual observer sees chaos, but in reality it's organized, moving in circles with scouts flying through the swarm, directing it while it travels at about 11 kilometers per hour," writes renowned honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr. of UC Davis and Arizona State University in his 256-page book The Art of the Bee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies.
"They don't go far," he writes. "A few bees land on a nearby branch, expose their scent glands located near the tip of the abdomen, fan their wings and blow air over the sponge-like gland spreading a chemical scent through the air. The chemical smells like citrus and attracts the other bees flying in the swarm to land on the branch. The queen alights, and soon the swarm is hanging, locked together foot to foot to body in a football-shaped mass, the swarm cluster. This is an intermediate rendezvous point, a place for a temporary bivouac from which the scouts can operate and find a new, permanent home. Some bees initiate foraging, bringing back supplies to feed the masses, while the scouts branch out and scout the landscape looking for the perfect nest site. The scouts are part hunter, part surveyor and part engineer."
Honey bees are both artists and engineers, Page writes in his book. As environmental artists, bees are "responsible for the brilliantly colored flowers in our landscapes," and as environmental engineers, they engineer “the niches of multitudes of plants, animals and microbes."
But back to the bee swarm at the Starner home.
Starner contacted a Vacaville beekeeping family, Craig and Shelly Hunt and daughters Alyssa, 13 and Emma, 8. They arrived in the early evening, around 6, to collect the bees. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Craig taught 4-H'ers (including Alyssa and Emma) the art of beekeeping.
"It was a huge swarm," Shelly said. "We filled two boxes."
The bees are now thriving in the Hunt family's apiary on Meridian Road.
It's bees-ness as usual for the Hunts.
And home, sweet home for the bees.
It was the first swarm of the season at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
The bees swirled, darkening the sky, and then swarmed from one of bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey's hives around 2 p.m. It was a sight to "bee-hold." At the onset, the bees looked quite confused, as if not knowing what to do. (Well, after all, they'd never done this before!) Most joined the queen in a cluster on a nearby tree branch. A few stragglers touched down on leaves.
Still others headed buzzed over to the empty hive that Cobey had strategically placed below the swarm.
A few hours later, Cobey hived the swarm. Voila!
The entire scenario reminded us what biologist Thomas Seeley of Cornell University said when he addressed two separate UC Davis crowds on Jan. 19 and Jan. 20.
Seeley, a professor in Cornell's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior (he teaches courses on animal behavior and researches the functional organization of honey bee colonies), outlined what bees do when they swarm.
They do it, he said, through "swarm intelligence, the solving of a cognitive problem by two or more individuals who independently collect information and process it through social interactions."
"With the right organization, a group can overcome the cognitive limitations of its members and achieve a high collective IQ. To understand how to endow groups with swarm intelligence, it is useful to examine natural systems that have evolved this ability. An excellent example is a swarm of honey bees solving the life-or-death problem of finding a new home. A honey bee swarm accomplishes this through a process that includes collective fact-finding, open sharing of information, vigorous debating, and fair voting by the hundreds of bees in a swarm that function as nest-site scouts.”
In his informative book, The Honeybee Democracy, Seeley writes: "Beekeepers have long observed, and lamented, the tendency of their hives to swarm in the late spring and early summer. When this happens, the majority of a colony's members--a crowd of some 10,000 worker bees--flies off with the old queen to produce a daughter colony, while the rest stays at home and rears a new queen to perpetuate the parental colony. The migrating bees settle on a tree branch in a beardlike cluster and then hang there together for several hours or a few days. During this time, these homeless insects will do something truly amazing; they will hold a democratic debate to choose their new home."
What they do IS truly amazing. We watched the swirl of bees cluster on a tree branch where they paused, as if waiting for "directions." (Or a Google map?)
We didn't see what Seeley calls "the collective-decision making of the swarm" and "the democratic debate" but indeed that happened, as it's been happening for millions of years.
In the end, the Laidlaw bees all relocated to their new home.
Home, sweet home.
"There aren't that many bees swarming this time of the year," said Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen, member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty. When bees swarm, they have to consider available food, he said, and the food supply is diminishing as we head into fall.
Often a homeowner will contact the bee biology folks here in the UC Davis Department of Entomology with this request: "I've got a bee swarm on my property. I don't want to kill them and I can't afford to pay for their removal. Do you know of anyone who can remove them for free?"
We usually provide the names of several beekeepers in the area who we know will oblige.
But ala Ghostbusters, "Who ya gonna call?"
Mussen, who writes the from the UC Apiaries newsletter and Bee Briefs, has an excellent piece on bee swarms on his website. It includes a definition of a swarm, what bees do, how swarms are removed and where to find beekeepers to remove them. He also points out that Africanized honey bees are more aggressive.
"Swarming is the honey bee’s method of colony reproduction," he writes in the "Removing Swarms" Bee Brief. "The old queen and half of the worker bees leave their former nest and seek a new home mostly in the spring, but sometimes in late summer. A few worker honey bees, we call 'scouts,' fly around areas in the vicinity of the old hive searching for a suitable, new habitat (the correct sized cavity with an easily protected entrance). Often, that job is not completed when the swarm “issues” from the hive. The outpouring of bees from the hive forms a large, buzzing cloud of insects that seems to be going every direction at once. That flying group of honey bees is the swarm. It is a phenomenal sight that frequently scares people. However, the bees eventually have to regroup, somewhere, while the search for a new home continues."
How do you find someone to remove them? Ala Ghostbusters, "who ya gonna call?"
Mussen advocates consulting the telephone directory (look under "beekeeper" or "beekeeping"). Another good source: the county agricultural commissioner's office.
Eagle-eyed Carol Nickles saw it first.
The graduate student coordinator for the UC Davis Department of Entomology spotted the bee swarm from a third-floor window of Briggs Hall.
There it was, swaying on a tree branch, about 25 feet above the ground.
A bee swarm, shaped like a bowling pin, but about 2.5 or 3 feet long.
What exactly is a bee swarm? The late Harry Hyde Laidlaw Jr. (1907-2003), noted bee geneticist-breeder at UC Davis, defined it as "a cluster of worker bees with or without drones and a queen, that has left the hive." The bees often cluster on a tree limb while the "scouts" search for a suitable home.
This particular swarm may be offspring from the bee observation hive located in 122 Briggs Hall for the past several months. Every April the folks at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, located west of campus, set up a bee observation hive for UC Davis Picnic Day. Thousands of social folks check out these little social insects. This is a social network more fascinating than Facebook, Twitter, My Space and Linked In combined.
You can watch the colony at work behind glassed walls. You can see the queen laying eggs, the nursemaids caring for the pending offspring, the royal attendants feeding and grooming the queen bee, and the architects and construction workers building the comb. Other bees are processing pollen into bee bread and converting nectar into honey. Meanwhile, workers are returning from their foraging trips and performing their trademark "waggle dances," letting their sisters know where they've been, where to go and how to get there.
As new offspring emerge (21 days for an egg to become an adult), the hive becomes overcrowded and congested. The end result: bee swarms, a natural part of their life cycle and one of nature's wonders.
The bee swarm at Briggs will probably move by tomorrow morning, says UC Davis bee breeder-geneticist Michael "Kim" Fondrk.
"By noon," he estimates, "they'll be gone."
Except it wasn’t planned.
On the last day of a two-day advanced workshop on "The Technique of Instrumental Insemination,” taught by bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. UC Davis, bees from one of the hives began to swarm.
It was perfect for one of Cobey's students, Ventura resident Bill Weinerth,
The bees headed for a nearby tree. Cobey, manager of the Laidlaw facility, smoked them to calm them down before shaking the bees loose and into their new home: an awaiting hive.
Weinerth loves working with bees. “I’ve had bees all my life except for 10 years when I was going to school (master’s of divinity),” he said.
“When I was 12, and living in
It's been a bee-loved passion every since.