In July 2016 I spent the night at a church in Dayton, Ohio. It was a layover on a group bicycle ride. I had just turned 20, but the other cyclists in the group were several years older than me and as usual, they headed out together to find a bar. Rather than mope around by myself in the empty church, I went for a walk in the last hour of daylight.
The streets were deserted. Many of the commercial buildings looked vacant. Our host at the church had mentioned that the 2008 Recession hit Dayton especially hard. Maybe that’s why the downtown seemed to be at half capacity.
I walked beneath a wide underpass. There were no other humans as far as I could see, but I knew people stayed here. One area looked like a furniture display transplanted from IKEA: king size mattress, dresser, shoe rack with pairs of shoes neatly lined up, and a rug on the bare dirt. It was a public area, but I felt like I had invaded an unseen tenant’s privacy.
I left the underpass and walked across a parking lot toward a multistory building filled with broken windows. The sunset reflected in what little glass was left. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement.
My feet froze. There was a tree about as tall as me — a strange enough sight, since the only other green things were weeds in the pavement cracks. But the object that caught my eye was nestled within the tree itself.
A honey-colored mass the size of a basketball was draped between two branches. It took a moment for me to register what it was made of. Bees! Thousands and thousands of tightly packed, wriggling bees.
I stayed suspended in astonishment for a moment. I didn’t understand what I was looking at but I knew it was something special. I finally pulled out my phone and took a photo before retracing my steps back to the church.
The next morning we were up before dawn, biking away from Dayton and toward the sunrise. By the end of the trip I had forgotten all about the mysterious bee formation. But recently, I became interested in beekeeping and began to read about how honey bees live. That’s when I learned about swarming.
Beekeepers suppress or control it, but in natural conditions, the swarming phenomenon is a key part of how honey bees reproduce and ensure the species survives. When a honey bee colony outgrows its home or reaches a certain critical mass, it divides into two. Half the bees gorge themselves on honey and nectar before they fly away. The average size of a swarm is 10,000 honey bees, traveling together in one massive cloud.
After reading the description of swarming, a lightbulb switched on in my brain. I grabbed my phone and scrolled all the way up in my camera roll to the summer of 2016. And there it was: the giant clump of bees in the tree. Now I realized that they were honey bees without a hive, resting on their journey.
Honey bees are vulnerable when they swarm. All they have is each other. If they don’t find a new home quickly, they starve. They don’t have the energy to fly for long, so they find a spot like a tree branch or a fence post and wait anywhere from a few hours to a few days. While the hiveless colony hangs in limbo, scout bees comb the landscape for a new dwelling.
A beekeeper can come collect a swarm if it takes up lodging in a bothersome location. But swarming honey bees are not typically prone to aggressive behavior, because they don’t have honey stores or a hive to defend. They are just tired travelers waiting for a new home.