“Swarm Times” by Marci Babineau

The early weeks of June had been hot like those stray days of summer when a body takes to the shade to sweat after a morning of gardening. I’d seen the bees rise up earlier that week, flying like a murmuration of starlings toward my neighbour’s old boxwood tree.  Perhaps they were investigating the large hole left when one of its massive limbs had dropped during a spring ice storm.

What I actually knew about this beekeeping venture I’d recently embarked on was pretty damn thin.  How thin dawned on me the day I was talking to a friend who would house sit for us later that summer.

“Honestly Jen, they should be way past swarming by late July,” I said, reluctantly bringing up the subject.

“Yeah. I definitely wouldn’t know what to do with a swarm.” 

This growing needling in the back of my mind sat me down to read about swarming just the night before.  I reassured Jen, “I’m sure it will be fine by then. Don’t worry.” 

My words echoed in their hollowness as I lifted my eyes to see a rising hum that had assembled within the confines of our six by twelve metre garden.  Around the old sour cherry tree that rose up in the centre were hundreds of bees. From my paltry research, I knew that while they probably wouldn’t be swarming in late July, as I’d just told Jen, they certainly were swarming now. The large group outings I’d witnessed had been practice runs.  But why? I had no idea. I had not even opened the hive or pulled out the first frames. 

It had been two weeks since I had placed the hive into the shady gap at the back of the house,

so, yes, I had bees, but I was no beekeeper. Not yet. I had stepped into the breach of hive collapse disorder armed only with a long abiding love of animals. Part of me wanted to skirt some of the science around beekeeping and let the bees teach me about themselves. I imagined a cordial relationship, built on mutual respect. I had hit the wall that nature reserves for that kind of human naiveté. Now I stood between the outer bounds of my knowledge and the growing din of chaos outside my dining room.

“I need to go, Jen.”

That day was already circled and starred on my agenda, but not because of the bees.  That day we would start planting the long-awaited edible planters with the City of Westmount. I nursed this venture—the result of a collaboration between the Westmount Horticultural Society and the city—into fruition.  We’d been working on the details for months, including plans for a photo in the paper to show support for the local food movement.

With no time to process what the afternoon might have in store for me, I went out to the little balcony. The collective buzz penetrated my soft tissues.  Time melded into a spellbinding hum. 

These were not creatures I had ever reckoned with. I had yet to realize that the bees would be unhappy in the damp little shady spot where I had stowed them. Or that the early warm spring would cause a rapid multiplication of their population. Only much later would I learn that housing bees too near chickens would be another point on the growing list of mishaps. As usual, I had launched without a parachute. There I stood looking up, hoping for wings.  

Fortunately, there was no time to wallow. The thick airborne buzz had begun to rise above the confines of our narrow-walled garden. Would the swarm be off now, plaguing some neighbour? Looking above me at the corner post of the upper deck I saw that they might be forming a ball. The night before, I had read that once the swarm was in flight, the bees would find a spot to camp where they could protect the queen from the clutches of birds. From there, they would wait for scouts to report back on potential new homes in the neighbourhood. That meant I just might have time.

I fumbled with our cordless phone to call my beekeeper friend in Tomahawk, Alberta.  Vivian had kept a hive in my garden when we had been in college in the States. 

“Hey Viv.  Listen.  Remember I mentioned that I might get a hive here in Montreal?”

“Marci?  Hey, can I call you back?”

“The hive seems to be swarming, Vivian.”

“Oh dear.”  She took a long breath.  “Has it balled up somewhere then?”

“Maybe starting to.”

“Call me back as soon as that happens.”

My unpreparedness crashed over me. What utter dumb-assery! I took the smoker – the one piece of equipment I’d gotten — and began collecting dry debris from the garden. All I’d hoped to do was to live in peace with the natural world.  To show myself and others that it was possible—desirable even—to grow food in the city.  With one false step, I’d managed to become one of the people who was giving urban growing a bad name.  

Checking the time, I realized that I would have to tuck the swarm into the back pocket of my mind for now. I grabbed my trowel and gloves and ran down to the corner of Prince Albert and Sherbrooke where the woman in charge of city beautification stood waiting.  She would not appreciate the fact that half of my beehive was on the loose.  I would need to keep that to myself, plant a few tame edible planters and smile for the camera. 

When I returned home a couple of hours later, the bees were balled up, waiting.  A textbook swarm.  I grabbed the smoker, got it smoking and tore through the house to the upper deck.  From where I stood, I could see their bodies in layers protecting the queen deep within the ball.  In this density of hundreds of souls, some dangled by two legs.  Others had all six enlisted.  

Only then, as I stood in the presence of this desperate and fearsome birth into a new colony, did it occur to me that this level of animal chaos might not go down too well with the neighbours.

This was in 2010. Internationally, people had begun to grapple with the possibility of using their small gardens to develop local food security in cities, where most human populations lived. To this end, I was determined to put my forty years of growing experience to work.

Beekeeping had been a reluctant addition to my efforts, a venture that began with a French-English miscommunication. The Quebecois farmer I had contacted about buying a hive said he’d have 500 bees and a new queen for me that weekend. After this first exchange, I’d reckoned that it was too much to start the city edible landscape project, keep hens (which I was not sure was at all legal) and add bees, all that same summer. Trouble was, when I tried to backpedal in my bad French, the farmer simply emailed me the address of his farm and a time we should meet.  I knew he’d be waiting.

Well, I thought, on the other hand, if not now, when? 

I stared across the deck at the buzzing chaos around the post, preparing myself for the onslaught.  Then I shifted into action: snapped rubber bands around my long sleeves and my trousers cuffs to keep the bees from crawling up my arms and legs.  I pulled a bandana over my braid and put on my long rose pruning gloves with more rubber bands. Vivian had suggested that I make a trap, so I’d turned a box upside down and propped it up on one end, with some honeycomb underneath to give the bees a scent of home.  Standing level with the corner post, I reached carefully into the mass of bodies, as I had never encountered bees en masse before. As I reached in, immediately the outer layer of bodies lifted off. The plan was to take these double flying handfuls and stoop quickly to release the chaos under the box trap a metre away.  Vivian had said that if I managed to get the queen, the rest might follow and perhaps stay the night there, tucked beneath the box.  I recall her not sounding terribly hopeful. But at least it was a plan. 

Only each time I returned to the gathered mayhem for another double handful of messy confusion, more bees became airborne. Soon, my arms were covered.  The entire deck was vibrating.  I was needling them.  The rising terror at their dislocation shot through me. It was no longer clear where the ball had been or whether any bees had made it under the box. I felt my legs carrying me across the deck toward the safety of the house. When I reached the door, I brushed off the remaining bees. I realized that I was shaking. Then there was the hot burn of my first and only sting. Looking down, I saw the smallest little sister curling up on the back of my heel.  

The ordeal had been more than either one of us could take.

That night, the temperature dropped to well-below their comfort zone and the boxed bees stayed huddled close.  At dawn, I slipped upstairs to the deck with the box lid. All was quiet.  In one movement, I flipped it over and put the lid on.  Now all I had to do was to carry the trap downstairs, through the house and back to the old hive.

Once it warmed up a bit, I dumped the bees at the entrance of the old hive thinking that, somehow, they would simply march in.  Honey, I’m home! right?  Instead, the swarm simply balled up under the base of the hive and waited for mid-day, when they would swarm again, possibly to a less convenient location.  

The moment of truth had come. I removed the cover from the hive.  With the exception of a few protective guard bees, things looked orderly and calm.  This would end all too soon.

The swarm would have to be recombined back into its original hive, handful by handful.  Deep inside the swarm would be the original queen. Again, if she re-entered the old hive, the rest would follow. In swarming, the part of the hive that is left behind would have done what it had to do. Requeen. Combining two queened hives meant that the two queens would soon meet and fight to the death.  

In the world of bees, there can be only one queen.  

With no other hive boxes, I was out of options.  After I’d successfully recombined the hives, the bees had been so aggravated that they’d stung the little granddaughter of my most supportive neighbour. Previously, she’d reminisced with me fondly about how her family had once tended bees in Westmount, decades before. She called that afternoon to say in no uncertain terms that the bees must move away from our shared fence.  

This was something they’d been trying to tell me themselves for days.

*

The early experiment of planting edible planters, while successful, was dropped by the City of Westmount and picked up by Transition Town N-D-G.  In turn, life had called me away to my husband’s birthplace in the UK, where I’d taught gardening in an international high school and joined the allotment-obsessed Brits growing in their extended season.  The community challenges overseas were both rewarding and intense.  

Then just as suddenly as we left Canada, we returned, and in 2018 settled on a place in the Laurentians for a less neighbourhood-intensive growing adventure. We got a hive from a keeper north of Mount Laurier. Beautiful bees. Then at the beginning of September in 2019 came a sweep of unseasonably warm days, just after I’d reduced the hive for winter. 

And yes, the hive swarmed.  This time it was onto a twenty-five foot high branch of the crab apple tree, two days before bee friendly temperatures would be over for the region.  One could trust that bees would not swarm this late as it was a death sentence for the hive, but local beekeepers said there were many “late swarms” last fall.  They attributed it to climate change confusion.

Urban growing still lives in my vision of the future.  However, humans will have to adopt the cooperative spirit of the bees (with the serious support of municipalities) before it will bloom into what is so deeply needed. For now, I am working on my land, keeping watch and trying to listen.


MARCI BABINEAU is a writer and gardener living in Montreal, and working on her little mountain farm in the Laurentians.  She is involved in community activism through development of local food culture, among other things.