May 26, 2011
One of the questions most frequently asked of urban beekeepers is: Where do you get your bees? Do they just fly into your yard?
Sometimes they do. A surprising number of people I meet tell stories of coming home from work one fine spring afternoon to find an undulating ball of honeybees nestled on a nearby tree-branch or fence. Seeing this phenomenon, some go into a panic and call 911; others go into a reverie and call their children out to marvel. In either case, by the time a beekeeper or — horrors! — an exterminator arrives, or by the time the family looks the next morning, the bees may have already flown away.
It’s the passing of a swarm.
Swarming is the honeybees’ way of propagating their species. When a colony becomes large, the bees — tens of thousands of sterile female workers, a few hundred male drones, and a single fertile female, the queen — raise another queen. The colony then divides into two groups, one staying put with their new queen and the other flying off with the old one to find another home. The swarm will settle temporarily on branch or fence or pole or wall while several hundred of the most experienced worker bees scout the vicinity for a suitable and safe cavity to inhabit, most often a hollow tree.
Despite centuries of study, entomologists still don’t understand exactly how each bee determines whether to stay home or to swarm, but they are coming to know how a swarm finds its new digs. Cornell professor Thomas B. Seeley recently summarized the research in his book, Honeybee Democracy. Contrary to the common belief that the queen bee is the autocrat of the colony, Seeley’s experiments show that the swarm makes a collective decision about where to live. The scout bees, having examined many possible dwellings for location and size, return to the swarm and, through the same kind of dance-like movements used to direct their sisters to sources of nectar and pollen, communicate their conclusions about the desirability of each prospect. Other bees then go to look at the options, and gradually the swarm forms a consensus on which one to take, flies off, and moves in. (Seeley discussed this process with NPR’s annoyingly flippant science correspondent Robert Krulwich on Tuesday’s Morning Edition; you can find the interview at www.npr.org.)
Beekeepers can influence the swarm’s decision by taking it to an empty hive — a comfy, ready-made home which the bees are usually (but not always) most happy to accept.
But back to our FAQ. Failing the good fortune of capturing a swarm, where do beekeepers get their bees?
More often than not, they buy them in what are called “packages” — several thousand worker bees culled from strong colonies, weighed out in two-pound lots, and placed in a shoe-box-sized cage with a mated queen in a separate little cage. You spray the bees with sugar-water to keep them temporarily flightless and busy licking the sweet stuff off each other, open the package, dump the sticky clump into an empty hive, release the queen from her cage, close up the box, and walk away. Within a week the package of disparate bees has become a functioning colony, the queen laying a thousand eggs a day, the workers foraging for nectar and pollen to feed themselves and the babies.
Usually these packages are made up by large-scale honeybee farmers, predominantly in the South, and are either sent directly through the mail or shipped by truck to a central location for pickup.
Having lost two of my three colonies to this year’s long and brutal winter, I ordered two packages from a beekeeping cooperative which supplies equipment, bees, and instruction to both aspiring and experienced beekeepers in New York City.
The co-op’s truckload of packages from Georgia was delivered to their warehouse on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn one morning last week. How was I to get my bees to their new neighborhood in the Bronx? Fight weekday traffic and risk a ticket for double-parking while I dashed into the warehouse? Nah. These Southern transplants would get around just like most New Yorkers do — by subway.
At the warehouse, conveniently located just steps away from a station with direct service to the Bronx, I sprayed the bees with water for hydration, zipped them up in duffel bags, and took them underground for their first New York adventure.
At nine in the morning, the subway car was packed with commuters heading to work in Manhattan. Several people looked up from their seats at this guy with two big bags slung across his shoulders, jostling for standing room. A recorded voice came through the loudspeaker with the routine message: “Remember, if you see something, say something. Report suspicious packages immediately.”
Yikes! Visions of the transit police swooping down and finding ten thousand stinging insects in my possession (a type of terrorist attack not unheard of in history; the Roman army threw bags of bees into enemy lines) made me shudder. But the gods were with me, the trip was smooth, and in an hour and a half two new colonies were ensconced in their homes in my Bronx apiary.
And that’s how this urban beekeeper got his bees.