The dandelions have arrived, hundreds of them gathering for their annual reunion in my upper yard. They are glorious this time of year, tossing about their manes of gold so bright they fairly shimmer in the spring sunshine. I am getting to know them up close and personal, because I am on my knees in the yard a lot these days.
On these still-cool mornings, I can often be found creeping around on the red magic carpet in the bee yard, gently picking up little bee bodies laying legs-up on the rug. Some of them are as dead as they look, but I’ve discovered that others just made it home too late, got cold before they reached the hive, and drifted down onto the carpet where they went into a chill torpor.
So I gather up all these bee bodies and hold them in my warm hands. Sometimes, I blow warm air onto them, which they hate. Bees are not fond of carbon dioxide. If you ever want to get stung, just blow into a hive entrance. Still, the warm air rouses them if they are still of this world, and as I creep along on my hands and knees, I’ll begin to feel the tickle of small feet moving around on my cupped palms.
Once the action in my hand feels brisk, I crawl over to the hive and carefully deposit the revived bees on the landing board. I know that the neighbors across the street can see me creeping about on the hillside. I have no idea what they imagine I’m doing, and I think I’ll just keep them guessing for awhile.
The season has been kind to the bees so far, and they are busy and vibrant. Come mid-afternoon on a warmer day, there will be hundreds if not thousands of them hovering in the air near the two hives and I make certain that there is time in my day to sit in the midst of them, smell the intoxicating aroma wafting out of the hives, and listen to the meditative hum of bees at their very best.
Very soon, both of these hives will swarm—a hive’s natural way of reproducing itself. Two-thirds of the bees, along with their Queen, will gather themselves into a wildly exuberant bundle and take to the air in a brown cloud. They will have been preparing for weeks, making certain that the hive is left with full stores of honey and freshly laid Qeen eggs so that the bees who remain behind will have all they need to rebuild their colony and birth a new Queen to carry them forward.
Meanwhile, the cloud of bees now in the air will settle momentarily somewhere near the hive, perhaps on a tree branch, a table leg, a barbecue stand, to assess their situation. The queen will be tucked deep in their midst. Already, scouts will be out seeking potential new homes in tree hollows, roof eves, or old walls. Sometimes, the scouts have identified a new home before the bees even leave the hive.
Soon, the swarm will take a collective breath and launch itself into the air again, moving to perhaps a higher location where they will remain for up to a few days until the “right” home is found. Watching a swarm move through the neighborhood this way can be both profound and intimidating to those who do not know the ways of bees—which is most of us. A moving swarm is a natural wonder of sound and undulating motion that can strike unnecessary terror into our too-domestic hearts.
Actually, swarming bees are incredibly gentle: They no longer have a hive to defend. They have cast their fates into the spring winds, and their defensiveness, too. When I collect swarms from branches and posts and eves, I always work barehanded, and often without my face veil, as well. I love the intense intimacy of working with swarming bees, and like being as vulnerable as they are in their creation journey.
Once I’ve gathered a swarm of bees into a box of some sort—a process that usually involves ladders, loppers, saws, feathers, and dilute honey water for gently spraying them so they have something to do while I’m collecting handfuls and bucket fills of bees—I place them into a new hive box and keep my fingers crossed. If I am lucky, they will look around their new cavern and declare it good. If I’m not so lucky, they will spill out and find a better place.
You see, the bees have to decide as a whole that the hive is acceptable. The scout bees do not choose the bees’ new home, they only bring back the information. Many scouts may introduce many new hive options to the swarm. Scientists would say that the scouts transmit this information by dance and by chemical scents. I believe the bees speak to each other in ways we don’t yet grasp, and that their communication has a great deal more to it than dance and aroma.
Once the scout bees have imparted their information, it is up to the collective of bees to decide which place will be best for them. A home is chosen when a critical mass of bees selects a particular option. As a superorganism, the bees act and think as one, with each bee being the equivalent of a neuron in a large brain, or a cell in a body. In this way, we can understand that each bee also contains the whole, as a body can be cloned from a single cell—all the information is there.
Biologist Thomas Seeley has been studying swarm intelligence (SI) for many years. He has fascinating books on the subject, and likens the process of bees selecting a new hive to the way our brains make decisions:
Remarkably, there are intriguing similarities between how the bees in a swarm and the neurons in a brain are organized so that even though each unit (bee or neuron) has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective decisions. For examples, in both systems the process of making a choice consists basically of a competition between the options to accumulate support (bee visits or neuron firings). And in both systems the winner of the competition is determined by which option first accumulates a critical level, or quorum, of support. Consistencies like these indicate that there are general principles of organization for building groups with SI, that is, groups that are far smarter than the smartest individuals in them.
If the bees I’ve gathered have a better dream of home in their minds, there will be no way I can keep them. Off they will go.
Now, even in the very best of circumstances, when swarms head out to find a new home, they have only a twenty percent chance of surviving their first year. Eighty percent of wild swarms will either lose their Queens in route or fall victim to disease, starvation, weather, or predators as they seek to establish their new homes.
Yet to stand in the midst of a swarm of bees, to feel your chest vibrate with the total exhilaration and anticipation of their 20,000 wingbeats, you would never imagine their very limited odds for success. No, their sound and movement and spirit is one of sublime joy and grand expectation. There is no worry-wort in a swarm. Each bee holds the dream of success in its small body, and adds that spark to the shimmering whole.
I am telling you this story about bees and swarms because it is the first week of spring. It is the time of the year when our blood begins to run high with dreams and plans and expectations for the growing seasons just in front of us. Our cells shimmer in the new warmth of spring sunshine, and all things seem suddenly possible and probable and magical.
I want to leave you with the image of the swarm in all its possible, probable, magical expectation that flies in the face of improbable outcomes. I implore you to bring your full heart, to bring each and every vibrating cell and neuron into your summertime dreams. Not all will succeed, perhaps. Nature tells us this.
But she also tells us to fly into each dream with nothing less than wild abandon.