June 18, 2008
"Hey, Roger, Jim Fischer here. Would you like a swarm?"
"Why sure. Where is it?"
"It was on a newspaper stand on the corner of 72nd Street and Second Avenue. Now it’s in a cardboard box in my car. I’ll bring it over."
I hastily assembled a wooden beehive, with empty frames of wax comb and some honey and pollen to make the place attractive. In short order Jim, a seasoned swarm-catcher and volunteer beekeeper at the Bronx Zoo, arrived at my apiary at Genesis Park Community Garden in the South Bronx and handed over the box, secured with tape. I opened it, knocked the bees down into the hive, and put on the lid.
I had a new colony.
That was on May 7. A week later, he called again. This time he’d collected a swarm from a tree in Riverside Park around 75th Street. I took that one too, hiving it above the first, separated by a layer of window screen — an apian duplex.
Both colonies are now thriving, filling the empty frames with honey, pollen, and thousands of bee-babies. I may get some honey from them before fall.
East Side, West Side, all around the town, swarms of honeybees have appeared on the sidewalks of New York this spring. In my nine years of beekeeping here, I’ve never seen anything like it. Besides the two Jim Fischer captured for me, I’ve gotten word of several more, including one that nestled on the outside wall of an apartment building near the Bronx Zoo, causing a secondary swarm of reporters, microphones, and cameras; an NYPD cop who’s a hobbyist beekeeper took that one away for himself.
Swarming is honeybees’ way of propagating their species. It is a collective form of cell-division, like amoebas do. When a colony grows too large for its quarters in a hollow tree or human hive, it divides itself in two. Half the bees fly off with their old queen, and the other half stay put with the new queen they have raised. Not even the experts know how individual bees decide which queen to stick with.
Swarming bees issue from their hive with a mighty roar and fill the sky in a chaotic cloud. Within minutes, however, they all come together at a temporary spot nearby — tree branch, fence, newspaper stand — in a tight cluster of thousands, sometimes as big as a basketball. There they wait, from a couple hours to a couple days, while scout bees fan out in teams looking for a permanent home. Through their famous directional dancing, the scouts communicate housing options to the cluster; somehow they decide which to take, and off they go.
We all know how we make decisions — or do we? — but how do honeybees? They’re just insects, they’re genetically programmed, they don’t think — or do they?
Beekeepers like me do all we can to inhibit our bees’ swarming tendencies, and for good reason: If they swarm and get away, you’ve just lost half your honey production because you’ve just lost half your workforce. In early spring, we try to relieve crowding in our strong colonies by creating artificial swarms, dividing each colony in two and introducing into the split-off portion a new queen, which we typically get through the mail for twenty bucks from queen farms in the South. Sometimes this procedure works; sometimes it doesn’t, and they swarm anyway. Bees aren’t domesticated like cows or chickens; you can try to out-guess them, but you can’t control them. As my bee-master, Father Bob Jeffers, often reminds me with monastic resignation, "You’re at their mercy."
When bees swarm, how do you catch them? Provided they aren’t on some tree branch forty feet off the ground, it’s easy: just spray them with sugar-water to get them nice and sticky like an undulating popcorn ball, shake them down into a roomy container, and dump them into an empty hive. Technophile Jim Fischer uses a portable shop-vac to suck them up and eject them through a hose into his catch-box. Despite their threatening appearance, bees in a swarm are very docile, heavy with honey they’ve gorged on in anticipation of what might be days of hungry house-hunting.
Where have all our city swarms come from? Unless you see one issuing from a hive, it’s impossible to tell exactly. Almost certainly most of them originated, directly or indirectly, from urban beekeepers’ colonies. The swarms we could not catch over the years found homes in New York’s expansive parkland, restoring a feral population once decimated by disease and development.
Swarms are an indication of strong, healthy colonies. Why is it that honeybees are thriving in the city while collapsing everywhere else?
Ironically, it may be that they have a much more natural environment here than in the lands of agribusiness. Unlike their commercial counterparts, trucked all over the country to pollinate endless fields of a single crop, they have a stable home life and a balanced diet of nectar and pollen from an immense variety of local flowering plants. And with far fewer pesticides and fertilizers applied to city foliage than to mega-farm produce, their food is purer, too.
Our season of swarms shows how, through the persistent work of urban farmers and conservation groups, cities like New York are becoming ecologically whole and at least partially self-sustainable again.
In simpler times, when people grew and knew their own food, they would rhyme: "A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; a swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon." As a minor poet of the Ogden Nash school, I’d like to add: "A swarm of bees in the Bronx is worth a prayer of thonx."
You know what I mean.