To the average man or woman, swarming bees might perhaps be a cause for fear. To a beekeeper, few memories rival those of the swarms he has seen. It is a thrill unique to this craft. It seems to me I remember all those I have ever dealt with, hundreds by now. My thoughts still go back to a distant boyhood, and I see myself bicycling home, barefooted, a large swarm of bees enclosed in a burlap bag and held at arm's length so that none would be injured as I pedaled along. The thrill and fascination that filled me then, as I watched large swarms stream into hives, has never weakened. I still sit in silent wonder, when now, alone, in one of my yards, I hive a new swarm. It follows exactly the pattern established millions of years ago. It is at this point in the colony's cycle that the psychology of the bees becomes most wondrous. It is now that the habits and orientations that have governed their every movement from the moment they first took wing are abruptly halted, to be replaced by a totally new orientation, as though the former had never existed. It is as though they were determined by a destiny laid down in advance. The phenomenon draws a philosopher's attention to the mystery that inhabits every pocket of creation. We see only a small part of the surface of things. The rest will be forever hidden from us, to be appreciated for its felt, but unfathomed, presence....
Swarming is, of course, essential not only to the survival of the species but also to nature itself, for without bees many plants — both wild and cultivated — that depend upon them for the viability of their seed would also be threatened with extinction.
There seems to be no practical way of preventing swarming, and sooner or later beekeepers need to conquer their anxiety over it. As in so many things, here one must be content with something less than perfection, doing what one can to reduce swarming, and beyond that hoping for the best.
Bees are not like the domesticated mammals and fowl over which human beings have so totally triumphed. They are still untarried and uncorrupted. I hope they will always remain so. If men were to conquer the bees, bending them entirely to human ends, then there would doubtless be rewards of some sort in terms of increased honey production. But something very precious would be lost. The bees we know care no more for our hives than for a hollow tree; they are as much at home in one as the other, and during the period of swarming the, are ready to abandon either for the other. The step to nature is for them a very short one. Indeed, it does not even exist. By inducing the bees to make their homes in the hives we provide, we gain control over their location and enable ourselves to reach into those homes and take what we will, but we gain little control over the bees themselves.
I profoundly hope it will always be so. The claims of human beings are not the only ones that are made in the natural realm, and there is something to be said for the spirit of adaptation and acceptance instead of conquest. We have conquered so much, and in the process laid waste to so much. If, now, this tiny insect adamantly refuses to yield its own nature to us, then a certain balance of things will remain as it should. The beekeeper will always be there, with the hum of the oblivious bees overhead. When he sees a prime swarm fill the air and move off to the woods, following the pattern set millions of years ago, he can draw from the sight an inner satisfaction that transcends consideration of material gain.
EDITOR'S NOTE. This article was excerpted from The Joys of Beekeeping, copyright ©1974 by Richard Taylor and reprinted with the permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc.
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