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Diving into the bee swarm

Staff writer

I am a fool, a lucky fool, but still a fool, a fool for new experience.

I think that’s why I adored photographing a swarm of over 15,000 honey bees last week while at least another 50,000 bees built hives nearby.

I actually sought out the opportunity by contacting Bill and Candy Vinduska, owners of rural Marion business Vinduska Apiaries

“Hey, Bill? Hi. Yeah, it’s me, Oliver Good. I’m the reporter who wrote about your mead making. I’m calling because I remembered you don’t mind having bees crawl on you.

“In our last interview, you and Candy said you don’t even feel the stings anymore. This is a strange thing to ask, but is there any way you would let me photograph you guys while the bees crawl on you? I think it would make a good news photo.”

Bill’s cell was crackly. I was on speakerphone. His wife, Candy, was speaking. I missed a swarm capture Monday. It was a gee-whiz and shucks moment for me.

Knowing the insects’ idiosyncrasies, the Vinduskas could manipulate a hive and create an imitation swarm using a caged queen.

They also had a beekeeping class planned. Forcing a swarm probably could happen then, but I had to be ready to buzz out there on a whim.

Bee swarms are a touchy sort. Some don’t last that long.

The class was in the Harshman Construction quarry north of Marion. What with recent rain, the day depended on weather.

I hung up and went about my week. Then about ten till five on Thursday, Bill called.

A swarm was at the quarry.

In a panic, I scooped up my reporter gear and hustled to my car. I think I might have driven faster than I should admit.

Off US-56, passing Pizza Hut, I kicked up gravel dust as great mounds of crushed rock loomed ahead.

No one at the gate — more panic — I kept driving on bone-white gravel past the weigh station, into a flat open expanse, rock dunes and fissures, trees, ascending conveyer belts and other machinery I didn’t understand.

Then I saw a truck. It U-turned in front of me. A hand jutted out of the window, beckoning me to follow.

I noticed a blasting sign before descending a small hill into a sparsely wooded area, where we stopped. Candy jumped out of the truck I had followed.

I saw another truck. Bill leaned on its window, talking to Rocky Hett, who sat inside.

Two flatbed trailers nearby were each stacked with boxes.

Hive boxes. Bees were inside.

A living hum of several pitches welcomed me. Worker bees and drones orbited the trailers like tiny satellites, many venturing out into the odiferous vegetation at my feet.

Adjusting my camera, I asked if the swarm was an imitation.

Nope. It was organic.

Attention directed to a 10-foot sapling about 30 yards away, I saw a brownish-yellow mass that looked like an elongated football.

The sapling bent under the weight of my first bee swarm.

We four humans briefly chatted about bees. Then the Vinduskas zipped on their white helmets. Their getups reminded me of radioactive haz-mat suits, minus fluorescent colors.

Rocky, ever the jokester offered me a wild sprig of spearmint to “keep the bees away.”

I laughed and thanked him, but I preferred to use my zoom lens to shoot from a distance as my feet betrayed me, taking me closer to the swarm.

My heartbeat quickened.

Bees zipped and zoomed everywhere like bullets. They weren’t killer bees; still it was the closest I’d ever been to a swarm. Plus, the bee trailers were at my back. Candy said there were about 7,000 bees in each box.

I think there were about 40 boxes, but I was in no frame of mind to take notes or make an accurate count. There were bees everywhere!

They have this noise, and it’s easy to call it a “buzz,” because that’s their onomatopoeia. The word is an imitation of the sound they’re thought to make, but up close, I mean actually inside the sound of honey making, there is no “bu.”

There is only ZZZZZZZ.

Hypnotized, I find rational thought impossible immersed in bee-country. And, stupid me, I’m not wearing a beekeeper’s net.

I circled the Vinduskas as Candy tickled the swarm and Bill lifted a hive box.

Bees bounced off of me. They clung and crawled on me. Maybe they liked my shampoo. But my kneejerk reaction was to flail my hands and swat. Don’t do that. It makes them more likely to sting. I pulled two bees out of my hair, before OUCH!

I was hit in the ear. One sacrificed its life to protect the hive.

Thankfully, I’m not allergic to bee stings.

The amount of pain a person experiences depends on how fast the stinger is removed. As she showed me a tiny barb she had plucked from my lobe, Candy assured me ear-stings hurt the worst.

Bill said I was marked. Stung once, more bees would target me because of a “sting here” pheromone omitted upon delivery. So I gladly accepted a beekeeper’s pullover, I later learned was actually a hooded mosquito jacket. It covered my head, arms, and torso.

Clad in proper bee armor, I ventured closer to the swarm, still mesmerized. Pardon the pun, but it was an insane buzz.

For me, a swarm is hard to describe, but it’s similar to an onion in the way it is layer upon layer of the same thing — only a swarm smells sweeter, and its layers move.

Eventually, Candy reached up and jerked the branch down several times as Bill caught the swarm in the hive box he carried.

Some layers fell in. Not all. And the ZZZZZZZ got louder. More bees pelted me. It was a little like being in a blizzard, only warmer, with more visibility.

Finally the Vinduskas brushed the inner most layer of the swarm off the branch and squirted it with a concoction that confused the bees, so they wouldn’t swarm there again.

Afterward, safe at home, I felt fortunate. I’d seen the eye of a bee-hurricane and lived to tell the tale.

It was little hard to take notes when I witnessed the swarm, so I called the Vinduska’s afterward to get more information and learned there wasn’t really anything for me to fear.

Very few bees I saw actually had stingers, I learned.

Bill told me that only guard bees, which have orders to protect the hive, have stingers; the rest are just foragers.

Bees in swarm mode are usually so concentrated on the queen that they don’t notice anything else, which is why the Vinduskas usually capture a queen without wearing protective clothing.

They wore beekeeper suits Thursday because of the 50,000 other bees stored near the swarm.

Bill said swarms usually form in the spring, when bees rebuild colonies after their population diminishes in winter.

Once the first pollen and nectar comes out, the queen “kicks into high gear” and “lays eggs like crazy.” Worker bees store pollen and nectar near the queen.

After the queen fills all the cells in the honeycomb with larvae, she begins laying eggs in “queen cups” which are a more vertical peanut-shaped opening, where new queens usually hatch.

The queen’s change in egg laying location spurs the hive to swarm because it indicates nest area is running out of room for her to lay eggs.

Worker bees begin acting like royal dieticians for the queen. They put her on a limited diet in effort to get her ready to fly. Queens haven’t flown in at least a year, Bill said.

About four days before a new queen hatches, the old queen will fly away, taking about half the colony with her.

In order to organize the “tornado cloud of bees,” Bill said, the queen then lands on something like a tree branch is often 10 to 100 feet away, and begins omitting a “come hither” pheromone to attract more of the colony

Other bees then land, shrouding the queen in their mass, and stick their hind ends up in the air omitting a similar pheromone.

That location serves as staging area for the next 10 minutes to 10 days, while scouts are sent out to look for a suitable place for a new home.

The Vinduskas urge anyone who sees a swarm to call a beekeeper instead of killing the bees, because swarms are really nature’s way of preserving the species and ensuring survival.

Last modified May 28, 2015

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