It’s 1976, I’m ten, I’m hooked on TV, and I’m scared out of my mind. The Killer Bees are coming, and there is nothing we can do to stop them. Unless you have a red Volkswagen and can drive it to the Superdome and turn the air conditioning down below 45ºF. But I don’t even have a driver’s license.
Looking back on it, The Savage Bees was a hilariously bad film, as were the string of killer bee movies that followed over the next couple years. The Swarm! is only terrifying because it shows how far Henry Fonda’s career had gone off the rails. But those films burned a mark on the psyche of my generation.
The Africanized bees that spawned the horror movies are of actual concern in the southern US. After all, bees in Africa evolved to face threats like honey badgers. A provoked Africanized hive can threaten humans and livestock, but not more often than the threat of lightning. Nothing lulls me to sleep like a good thunderstorm, and Africanized bees don’t make a New England beekeeper’s Top Ten list of worries.
Our human fear of bees has a rational side. Bee stings hurt. But humans also have a deep, irrational fear. I read somewhere that the brain has a hard time coping with the idea that something so small can cause such a big ouch. I also read that elephants are afraid of bees and that makes me feel better about it. Really, aren’t elephants wearing a big coat made out of Elephant Leather?
A while ago I conducted an experiment on myself that involved making bees sting my foot a few times a week. I would take a jar of six or seven bees and pull out one at a time with long tweezers. Sometimes a bee would get out of the jar and start flying around the room. I was purposely trying to get bees to sting me but my first reaction was invariably, “Holy Crap! There’s a bee in the room!” Give me a veil and I’m Superman. Take it away and I’m just another Clark Kent.
The word “swarm” sounds alarming (especially when you put an exclamation point at the end and cast Fred MacMurray.) The image people often form when they hear it is the classic cartoon strip of a kid being chased by an attacking cloud of bees until he can jump to safety in a pond. Honeybees don’t behave that way. A swarm is a docile if scary-looking cluster of bees. It is how a hive reproduces and like many animals it generally does so in the spring. A healthy hive will rear a new queen and send its old queen with a bit more than half of its bees to start a new colony elsewhere. When I discussed this with my neighbor Caleb, who was 9 at the time, he gave me a wonderful context: It’s like when a country gets too crowded and some of the people emigrate from their old country and start a new home, like the Europeans to the New World or early Americans settling the West.
When the hive reproduces (swarms), some tens of thousands of bees will depart, then gather together around the queen somewhere not far from the hive. Often it is on a branch 10 or 20 feet in the air and occasionally it is in a place visible enough to freak out a neighbor. From the cluster of bees, scouts will fly out to find a good new place to live. If a scout finds what she thinks is a good spot, she will return and do a little dance on the outside of the swarm. If enough scouts return with enthusiastic reports about the same spot, the swarm will reach an agreement and head off together to start building a new hive there.
Good beekeepers will try to prevent a swarm but sometimes a hive will do it anyway. Beekeepers will try to catch their own swarm before it becomes a nuisance. Sometimes a swarm will show up from who-knows-where. So if you see a big bunch of bees hanging on a branch somewhere, freak out just a little; that’s natural. Then realize, the earth is blooming and the bees are reproducing – they are too busy to want to bother you. And if they’re clustering together, they’re most likely honeybees. Somewhere near you there is a beekeeper who would love to take your call and give them a good home.
And all of that is just setting you up so I can tell you a swarm story I’ve been promising. But this has already gone on too long, so you’ll have to tune in tomorrow.