The swarm! The swarm!

Science, IT, Nature

Having taken care of bee hives for many years, Rashid relates his latest adventure with bees on the summer solstice.

Who asked me how I spent the summer solstice?

Was it you?

Well, three days before the actual solstice, a neighbour came knocking on our door. He had seen a swarm of bees buzzing round his chimney.

That was good news. And bad news.

Good, because I was in need of a colony, having lost my last two in winter. Bad, because chimneys are difficult places from which to recover swarms.

I walked up the road with him to take a look.

Bees in chimney

Swarms are the natural way for bees to replicate themselves. Like an amoeba, a colony divides into two halves. The old queen flies off with the older bees leaving behind an unborn queen in a cell to be cared for by the younger bees.

It was just as I feared. Numbers of bees were still circling the stack, leaving and entering through gaps in the brickwork.

“Is there a stainless-steel flue lining the chimney all the way up?”


“Then around it there must be a cavity – and that’s where the bees will reside. The queen will be there already. Now there is no way to retrieve her – even if one could get up there.”

“So I will have to call in the Pest people.”

Bees are not pests. Bees are amazing beings. They seem to be very intelligent. Individual bees very quickly can learn and remember their way out of a maze. They are now being trained in bomb and explosive detection at airports. And they have a collective intelligence too. They act as one to decide which source of nectar to harvest; a bountiful field at some distance or a poorish crop nearby. And the decision to swarm is collective.

“One thing you can do,” I said, “is to light a fire in the stove with damp wood making smoke. Send up plenty of smoke. Bees in their natural forest habitat fear only two things. Bears and a forest fire. When they smell smoke, their home is in peril. They fill their stomachs with honey from their stores and stay ready to evacuate. Likewise, with swarming, they carry 3 days of honey in their stomachs. Let’s see what happens with the smoke.”

We were passing through the hottest June since records began. But the neighbour, whose name I have never known in 20 years, dutifully lit a fire and kept it going.
Now the colony clustered on the chimney’s outside, southern face. One day passed. Two days passed. The neighbour wondered if he should attempt to spray it with his pressure hose. The swarm appeared to be a very big one.

“Let’s leave it one more day. They’ll soon be getting hungry.”

The next day was the summer solstice. In the morning, I helped a friend with his bees some miles away. Driving there and back I pondered possible strategies. Earlier in the year I had put out two empty hives as lures for errant swarms. They were in our orchard, one in a tree and one on a stand. Both had fresh foundation wax in frames for them, both had been rubbed with fragrant leaves of lemon balm. Why had they not found them, only a quarter of a mile from this challenging chimney? Now they were clustered on the brickwork, perhaps the queen too had been forced outside. Perhaps now I could borrow a ladder and attempt to capture them.

Back at my neighbour’s home I examined the chimney again. If I could find some rope and a ladder long enough, despite the awkward, jutting TV aerial, they might be reachable. I made a decision. At dusk, I would take up a cardboard box, hold it below the cluster and with a soft brush gently sweep them into it. The sound of the sighing plop of a swarm as it falls in a box is an unforgettable, ever delightful sound.

Before all that I must water the bone-dry vegetable beds and mow the grass.

Returning to home, weary from the work and the steep haul up through the woods, another neighbour met me. “The swarm! The swarm! It’s headed down there in the direction of the orchard.”

I turned and ran.

Disappointment. Both lure hives were empty.

But I could hear the hum of them. Somewhere.

I found them in my garden shed, in one of last year’s hives that was yet to be cleaned and flamed.

How wonderful we’d waited. How wonderful I did not have to climb that ladder. How wonderful that they had found a home with one who longed for them.

RashidRashid is a regular contributor.

All articles by this author published on Osho News

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