Why Do Bees Swarm?

By Charlotte Hubbard
Last May I flew off to Florida for a long weekend vacation. Concurrently, colonies of bees in my area flew off to find new homes. As I’m on the local swarm list, I received eight frantic calls about retrieving them. Yes, eight, doggone it! Eight families’ nightmares are the stuff of beekeeper dreams. They would’ve nicely expanded my apiary!

However, swarming bees are bees not cooperating with the fickle wishes of humans. Those eight swarms were no exception. By the time I’d flown back from vacation, the bees had flown off again.

Last month I vacationed with much of my family to Canada. Upon clearing Customs, I turned on my phone for the first time in a week to find five messages.

Why do bees swarm?As I’d vacationed with many family members including two of my kids, I was fairly certain the phone messages weren’t frantic calls about any family crises. It was more likely that these were “thank you so very very much!” calls from credit card companies.

They were not. Instead, they were frantic calls. Once again, while I was on vacation, bees had swarmed. It was August 11, and I couldn’t help but think of that oft-quoted expression “A swarm in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon; a swarm in July, let her fly.” Note that the poem stops abruptly without suggesting the value of a swarm in August.

Perhaps that’s because a swarm in August isn’t worth much—not enough time for the colony to build up for winter survival or produce any honey for humans.

Of course, it might also be because nothing easily rhymes with “August.”

Thinking that might be the problem while waiting for a cab to the airport, I tried to rhyme “August.” It’s tough. I asked my little darlings, who responded as they always do, with a roll of their eyes and “Mom, just Google it!”

And so, I searched Google for “words that rhyme with August.” While I was immensely proud of myself for being able to do that on my smart phone that is way smarter than me, the kids quickly burst my bubble by noting I should’ve just searched for “rhyme August.”

Anyway, thanks to Google, I now know there are a few things that sort of rhyme with August, like “bust” and “crust.” Those seemed quasi-appropriate, as capturing a swarm in August is likely a bust, or worth a gnawed pizza crust.

“Undiscussed” was also offered as a pseudo-rhyme, and it also works, because a swarm in August is probably not even worth talking about.

However, the sweet homeowner with bees dangling from her tree kept talking about her swarm, as three of the five calls on my phone were from her, begging me to please please please come and make it go away. The other two calls were from a guy with a swarm, and the guy calling back to say the swarm had left.

The frantic woman’s calls had been left on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. It was now Saturday, and I wouldn’t be home until Sunday. What were the chances of the bees still being there?

Well, about 100%. When I called the frantic woman to explain why I hadn’t responded and to thank her for trying to help honeybees that had surely moved on by now, she interrupted to tell me that the bees hadn’t yet left, and that the swarm was growing daily—how soon would I come and get them?

As I couldn’t even get a cab to the airport, getting bees out of a tree hundreds of miles away seemed like a remote possibility. I asked her to call me Sunday if they were still there, and I’d see what I could do.

My wake-up call Sunday was from, you guessed it. The swarm was still very much there; she was very much still frantic. I unloaded the vacation luggage, loaded bee capturing equipment, and headed out.

En route, I thought about why a swarm on Day 6 of their move might not be moving. Perhaps, having finally left the hive after weeks of planning, they glanced at the calendar and realized it said “August,” not “June.” I’ll bet the old hive was starting to look really good again. Or, as the address I’d been given was in a residential area, perhaps they were better positioning themselves to watch a lot of football through the picture window.

Driving down a dead-end street, I speculated which of the two remaining homes was likely the one I was seeking. The first house was a quiet one-story home with lots of small trees in the back. The second, adjacent to a public school, had three large, loud, barking dogs in a large cage, three small, loud, bouncing children in a trampoline cage, an uncountable number of kids riding bikes and Barbie Doll cars and plastic horses in circles, and nearly a dozen adults staked out in lawn chairs who, judging by the number of empties at their feet, had been there longer than the bees had been.

Guess which house where the bees were. And now, I understood why they’d stayed. They probably swarmed from a hive where people spent a lot of time staring at them, and decided to stare back at the ongoing three-ring circus in this backyard.

“Are you the bee person?” The calm, grey-haired woman rising out of her lawn chair offered me her hand but not a drink.

I confirmed I was.

“Too bad,” she shook her head. “They left about twenty minutes ago.”

Oh well, it was all for the best. Getting bees out of a tree with a swarm of children, pets and plastic cars below probably wouldn’t have gone that well. And now, I’ve got an update for that old poem: “For a swarm in the month of eight, chances are, you’re too late.”

I also have an answer for why bees swarm: because I go on vacation.

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