Ah, spring. The world wakes up, and as they said in Bambi “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime.”
We have Cardinals, House Finches, and sparrows regularly visiting the feeder in our back yard, along with the occasional Goldfinch or Tufted Titmouse. We see some Mockingbirds, but they don’t seem to be using the feeder (maybe the wrong type of food). We also have a pair of Carolina Chickadees have taken up residence in a bird house we put up (they had to chase away a bluebird who wanted to move in after they had already claimed it).
I can understand where the “birds” part of the “birds and the bees” saying. The birds in our back yard do seem to make quite a conspicuous display of their courtship (singing, strutting, chasing each other about, etc.) How the bees got into our famous idiomatic expression, I have no idea. They definitely aren’t conspicuous about their “courtship”, but somehow we seem to have associated them with such things. In addition to the “birds and the bees”, we also go on honeymoons. Wikipedia says that a “honey moon” or honey “month” is found in at least Welsh, Spanish, Itallian, Arabic, and Persian (and may have come from a tradition of giving a months supply of mead to a newly married couple). I lived in the Philippines for a couple of years, and learned that in Tagalog, the equivalent of honeymoon is “pulot-gata” which literally means “honey-coconut milk”. I think that the Tagalog idiom comes from a completely concept, but I’m not going to explain the euphemism. 🙂
Anyway, back on topic. Bees also like to reproduce in the spring. When you think about honey bee reproduction however, you really have to think of the hive as a single organism. The birth of a single bee really doesn’t propagate the species. A single bee, even the queen, is in a funny way more like a bit of tissue, or maybe a organ, than an “organism”. Only a hive can “reproduce”. Workers can’t without the queen. The queen can’t do anything without the workers. In order for bees to spread and increase as a species, you need new hives. The way you get new hives is a swarm.
When a hive becomes strong enough, with enough workers and stores, they can swarm. Somehow, as a group, they make this assessment. The queen doesn’t make the decision, it seems to be some type of group consensus amount the workers. When they decide its time, they begin raising new queens (usually more than one – they will fight it out to see who will be the next queen). When its time, the hive splits in two (lets say roughly in half for ease of discussion). Half the hive gorges themselves with honey and leaves with the old queen. The other half stays with the new queen (who may or may not have hatched yet). The half that left with the old queen is the swarm. They leave and will congregate in one big mass while they come to a consensus on where their new home should be. Scouts spread out and look for a suitable new home site. The sight of a large mass of bees can be startling, but swarms are generally quite calm and not agressive. Thats not to say that you couldn’t get stung if you messed with them, but without a hive to protect (and gorged on honey), they are likely to ignore you if you don’t bother them. Here are a few pictures of what a swarm looks like.
Note, none of these are my pictures. They are pictures placed on Flickr by people who are nice enough to place them under Creative Commons Licenses (http://creativecommons.org/). In case your wondering, I put all my photos and such under a similar license (see the note on the sidebar).
If you happen to be lucky enough to see a swarm, there are some things you might want to do. Most times, swarms are not a problem and are just looking for a new home. If you leave them alone, they will probably leave you alone. You could just watch them, and they will likely move on at some point (when their scouts find a good mew home). Problems can sometime arise from where they choose as a new home. Naturally, they look for hollow in trees and such. In our modern world however, its often more likely that they find a hollow in the roof or wall of someones building than to find a sufficiently large tree with a hollow in it. Bees are interesting, and I like them, but having them in the wall of your house may not be the best idea. Probably the best thing you can do to avoid this is to call someone who would like to keep the bees. There are a number of places to find people to contact. In no particular order, here are some places to look:
These are all national lists. Local beekeepers associations are also a very good place to contact. Where I am, people can contact the Orange County BeeKeepers Assoc for example. On their listserv so far this year, I think there have been more than a dozen posts reporting swarms in the area. You can usually find websites for beekeepers associations in your area on the web (search for the sate organization first, they usually have links to local groups). If you do contact someone about a swarm here are some things to keep in mind.
- Make sure they are honey bees (like the pictures aboves) – beekeepers have no interest in taking your yellowjackets or hornets.
- Try to find someone close to you. The bees could stay where they are overnight, or be gone in 5 min. People won’t want to drive a hour, only to find the bees gone. For this reason, if you can find someone who lists their phone number, that might get the quickest response.
- Let the beekeeper know where the bees are. Are they 3 ft of the ground (meaning reachable), or are the 80 ft up in a huge tree with no good way to get to them.
- A swarm is one thing, removing bees that have moves into a building is another. There are still people that will remove bees that have already set up house, but that can be a full days work. Make sure you are clear as to which is the case.
Lastly, count yourself lucky to have seen this amazing and natural process.