When honey bees swarmed last week at the entrance to the Epiphany Episcopal Church in Vacaville, the site seemed quite fitting.
Biblical references to bees and honey, such as "the land of milk and honey," abound.
Blessed are the bees.
Bees, responsible for pollinating one-third of the food we eat and renowned for their intelligence and industriousness, figure prominently in religion, mythology and folklore. Roman Catholic Bishop St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) of Geneva viewed a bee's work as "pure," writing that “the bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them.” (The bishop, later honored as a saint, apparently did not know that worker bees are female, not male.)
So enter Epiphany Episocol Church congregation member and music director Carlyn Crystal of Vacaville, the "junior warden" or "people's warden" who helps coordinate issues with the facility and grounds. She heard the buzz, saw the small cluster (about the size of several baseballs) 12 feet above the church entrance, and on the third day, contacted the Craig Hunt family, a Vacaville family of beekeepers.
Swarming, mainly a spring phenomenon, is the colony's means of reproduction as scout bees search for a new, permanent home. The swarm usually moves within three days.
Craig, his wife Shelly and daughters Alyssa, 13 and Emma, 8, arrived in the early evening of March 22 with a ladder, a smoker and a bee box. The family keeps some 50 hives at their residence on Meridian Road and were active in 4-H beekeeping projects before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Craig has taught many a 4-H'er, including his daughters, about bees.
"The bees may have swarmed to a nearby location," Craig said.
But there they were, the social insects congregating at the entrance to Epiphany, forming their own choir and social center.
Yes, 4-H projects have long included beekeeping. The Solano County 4-H Program, comprised of 10 clubs (as well as the military 4-H programming at Travis Air Force base), currently has one beekeeping project, according to Valerie Williams, Solano County 4-H Program Representative. The beekeeping project, offered by the Suisun Valley 4-H Club, includes 11 youth and two adult volunteer project leaders. (News flash: James "LJ" George gave an illustrated talk on beekeeping at the Solano County 4-H Presentation Day, held March 13 on Zoom and won a gold award.)
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Solano County 4-H Office is temporarily closed and meetings, programs and workshops are under restrictions.
Bees, however, know neither boundaries nor borders as they go about their bees-ness.
Church grounds are just fine with them.
Blessed are the bees.
(Note: Beekeeper Craig Hunt can be reached at 707-637-7221)
Bee swarms are absolutely fascinating.
Several years ago, when bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey was teaching a queen- rearing class at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at UC Davis, her students received an extra bonus: they witnessed a bee swarm.
Right in front of them, as if on cue, the bees left the entrance of a hive and clustered on a nearby tree branch. That was Lesson No. 1. Cobey and crew quickly captured them and moved the swarm to a vacant hive. That was Lesson No. 2.
Actually, bee swarms aren't that rare on the UC Davis campus. They're just difficult to see because we're usually looking down instead of up.
This week UC Davis employee Suzan Carson alerted us to a bee swarm in the North Hall/Dutton Hall complex. She pointed to a tree branch, about 30 feet off the ground, where, in the deepening shadows, a cluster hung like grapes. "Good eye!" we said.
Today, toting my telephoto lens, I returned to capture an image of the cluster. They were still there, but probably won't be for long. The pending rainstorm may drive them from their temporary home, observed Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology.
Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, explains the ins and outs of swarms in his newly published book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees.
"The act of swarming is perhaps the most dramatic event in the lives of honey bees," Gary writes. "Here's how it happens: Egg production increases dramatically in response to warming spring weather as well as an abundance of pollen and nectar from spring flowers. Within a few weeks, the colony population essentially doubles. Multiple queen cells--usually at least six--are constructed in the brood nest. A few days prior to the emergence of a virgin queen, the old queen's ovaries begin to shrink. Egg-laying essentially stops, and she loses enough weight to permit flight for the first time since her mating flight."
So basically there's "no room in the inn" for the burgeoning population. The colony divides. The swarm usually heads for a nearby tree to cluster on a branch while the scouts search for a new--and appropriate--home.
Meanwhile, back at the old hive, new queens are emerging and what happens next isn't pretty. "Rival queens engage in fierce stinging attacks until only one virgin queen remains," Gary writes.
About a week later, the victorious queen will depart on her mating flight to a drone congregation area, mate with 12 to 25 or so drones, and then return to the hive to lay eggs--as many as 2000 a day during the peak season.
The queen will never leave the hive again...
Unless, on a warm spring day...
A funny thing happened on the way from El Cerrito to UC Davis on Friday, Aug. 1.
And it wasn't even Friday the 13th.
At 7 a.m., a group of UC Davis employees approached their commuter van in an El Cerrito parking lot. But, after glancing at the passenger side, they weren't at all sure they wanted to board.
A huge swarm of bees bearded the entire passenger side of the vehicle and part of the windshield. Thousands of bees. Did I say thousands of bees? Thousands of bees.
What to do? Knowing about colony collapse disorder and the declining bee population, they didn't want to hurt them. So they climbed in the van via the driver's side and circled the block, hoping the bees would disperse. They didn't.
In an un-bee-lievable sight, the white van, accompanied by the bees and their queen, buzzed to the UC campus on a 60-mile freeway ride.
When the vehicle pulled into the Shields parking lot shortly before 8 a.m., so did a long line of bees hanging around the door frame.
“We lost most of them along the way,” said vanpool driver Keir Reavie, head of the Biological and Agriculture Sciences Department at Shields Library.
How did the survivors survive?
“Some bees must have slipped inside the door frame and held on to the others by linking legs,” said UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen. “The queen bee was probably inside the crack.”
Reavie had earlier emailed him, asking what to do.
Mussen recommended that they leave them alone or contact a beekeeper on campus or in
Meanwhile, the social insects spent the day on campus, periodically leaving the van for food and water, while others—the scouts—searched campus buildings for a new home. Some bees parked on the “Van Pool Parking Only” sign and the motorcycle permit parking sign.
At least one bee casualty occurred in the Shields parking lot: a bee flew into a nearby spider’s web. When Mussen arrived at the site, the spider was feasting on the web-wrapped bee. A taste of honey.
What happened to the bees? "I was not able to contact the person Eric suggested on Friday afternoon, so nobody came to take the bees," Reavie said. " When I returned to the van at 5 p.m., most of the bees had left, but there was still a large group on the passenger side rear view mirror. Some of these dispersed on the trip back to
As for the UC Davis commuter van, it’s now “the bee mobile."
Let's hear it for our "unstung heroes."