Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Loving a swarm

From ABC news:“Thousands of bees -- in a hive -- in a building between 4th Avenue and Irving Place -- and it was no joke to the employees here at GameStop. They were trapped inside their store. The sign in the window said, "temporarily closed, due to bee infestation."

I hear of a swarm and I immediately want to be there, right where the bees are. I want to stand amidst the bees as they fly to and from the swarm with complete attention and intention.
When we first became beekeepers five years ago, an older beekeeper (a psychiatrist who studied the hive to expand his understanding of the human brain) told us that a swarm was one of the most wonderful things we would ever experience. I had no idea what he was talking about.
And then our first hive swarmed, and we were in the back yard with the bees as they exited the hive in flight patterns of Boschian wonder, as they clustered on the branch of a nearby apple tree, as the cluster of interconnected bees grew to the size of a basketball shaped like a heart, as the scout bees went off looking for a suitable new home and returned to share their findings via the waggle dance. Then I got it. I was electrified and after much searching I find that is the best word for what it felt like to me. I was in the midst of an electrical force field. Just as the bees were dedicated to the queen’s pheromones, I sensed my own adrenalin rising and dashing about in every direction. You know how it is when you first fall in love and you can’t eat or sleep and you don’t quite understand what exactly is so altered but you know that the world looks remarkably rosy? You can’t live that way forever, but it’s great when it happens. And that’s what being with a swarm is like for me. Through no merit of my own I can exist briefly among the bees as they engage in this perfect and ancient task of dividing to increase.
Saturday some honeybees (probably about 30,000 workers plus one queen) swarmed in Union Square. Or so said the headline. It seems there was a hive living inside the wall of a video game store (Waggle Dance Pong? Buzz Saw Massacre? Bringin’ in the Pollen? Bee very very Scared?) and employees at the store noticed the bees, who may very well have been there for years or only days. Then panic set in. The employees believed they were “trapped inside the store”. They put up a sign, “Closed due to bee infestation,” and awaited rescue.
No one was stung.
Honeybees swarm when their hive has become too crowded. Rather than fighting it out, they collectively create a new queen by taking several fertilized eggs and feeding them Royal Jelly. Royal Jelly is secreted from the hypopharyngeal glands in the heads of the bees and when a larva is fed exclusively on Royal Jelly, she becomes a queen. (This same substance is used in extremely expensive creams and lotions, based on the notion that what makes a queen will make your skin younger. There appears to be no basis for this claim, and as you can imagine, extracting it is laborious and bizarre.) Having ensured her replacement, and the continuance of the remaining hive, the queen and half her bees, about 30,000 at this time of year, will depart, having first provisioned themselves for the expedition by gorging with honey and pollen. They will first cluster on a nearby limb or eave, or in the much-ballyhooed incident last year on the Upper East Side, on a newspaper vending machine. And while the queen is safely in the center, scout bees – older and wiser bees – go out to find their new home. They periodically return and indicate their findings by performing the waggle dance upon the bodies of their clustered sisters. And somehow, a collective decision comes about. In a recent issue of Science News, Susan Milius posits honeybee swarming as an example of democracy in action. In fact it is better than most democracies, because all of the bees are acting in concert for the good of the hive, its preservation and perpetuation.
Because the swarming bees are weighed down with honey and pollen, and because they are so focused on finding the next perfect cavity, it is unheard of for them to sting. They have better things to do than engage in suicide, because when a bee injects her barbed stinger in your skin most of her entrails are pulled away with it, and she dies.
Now that we are proper beekeepers, one of the things we are meant to do is manage the hives so they do not swarm, because when they swarm you lose most of the honey production for that season, and you risk upsetting your neighbors. We don’t live in the city and our bees have plenty of room in our back yard, but over the years we have lost a few swarms. But this is where CSB and I differ. He really is a proper beekeeper and manages our hives expertly; he is gentle and considerate with the bees, but not sentimental. Not me. If I see swarm cells in a hive, I leave them alone and keep the news to myself. I read the Georgics and long for a swarm.
I would have loved to been in Union Square.

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