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“My bees swarmed this morning,” Hedegus said in a tone one might use to admit he had poured water into his gas tank in the hopes of cleaning it. He had done everything right, he told Fischer. Last week, he even added an extra box to his hive, so the bees wouldn’t feel like they were out-growing the place.
“Oh shoot,” Fischer replied, setting down his paint brush and placing his hands on his hips. Hedegus’ swarm had flown the coup only to settle, in a buzzing cloud, onto a stump in his neighbor’s yard. He had called and left messages, with no reply. Fischer suggested hopping the fence.
“You gotta grab the queen,” Fischer said. “Have you ever picked up a queen before?”
“No,” Hedegus answered.
“Oh shoot,” he said, again. “Have you got a brush and a cardboard box?”
Fischer finally prescribed a wholesale scooping motion. “Just start gently brushing them into box,” he said. “As many as you possibly can.”
Once Hedegus had the queen, the rest would follow her scent – a kind of entomological chess game.
Hedegus’ shoulders dropped a bit. He had been bitten on the lip last week – right on the lip. He did not look forward to this new chore.
For Fischer, Hedegus’ dilemma represented the principal challenge of urban bee keeping. “Swarm control,” he boomed for emphasis into the nearly empty room. “Swarm control, swarm control!” Swarming happens when queens get old or their colony grows too large for its hive space. Workers put the elder queen on a diet to slim her down in the hopes that she’ll fly off with half the population to begin anew. This usually occurs with the arrival of a newer, younger queen.
The swarm might stop off anywhere as it searches for an appropriate home. They’ve shocked pedestrians by landing in a clump on busy city streets and wigged out homeowners who come home, one day, to find honey bleeding through their walls. There are numerous ways to hedge against swarming –none of them foolproof. For Hedegus, it was too late. The young father wondered what chance his remaining bees had of raising a queen from their brood.
Not much, Fisher said: “Right now there aren’t really enough hives in New York City to gamble with allowing the queen to go out and mate.”
When queens are born, they leave the hive for two or three days and mate with drones from other colonies, collecting enough sperm in that orgiastic stint to lay thousands of eggs a day for years to come. The drones don’t make out so well, their sex organs break off inside her and they fall to the ground, dead. An undersexed or inbreeding queen will produce shitty brood, dooming the hive. Because hives in the city are few and far between, a homegrown virgin queen in New York City is unlikely to find a decent bunch of dudes.
Fischer suggested breaking the hive up into a few colonies and buying a couple of new queens. “Cheapest thing a bee keeper can buy is a queen,” he said.
Fischer urged Hedegus to experiment. “I’m speaking from a commercial perspective where you really don’t want to take any chances,” Fischer said. “Hobbyists have a great opportunity to experiment.”
That night, Hedegus went home and scooped up his bees — easy as pie.
Days later, a foreign swarm settled high into a tree in his backyard. And then another. Hedegus couldn't resist. He managed to grab the first bunch, setting the bees in box while he raced to put together his second backyard hive. By the time Hedegus settled the surprise swarm in their new home, the second bunch flew off into Brooklyn to become someone else's problem — or prize.