Recently, as I was walking across the southern end of my college campus, I encountered a giant, buzzing swarm of bees making drunken patterns in the air. Another professor, several yards ahead of me, stopped and asked, “What are they?”
I immediately called a friend, a tree surgeon who has relocated wild hives. His name is James Brochu, he goes by the handle Puma Ghostwalker, and I had just been texting him that morning about the island’s decimated bee population.
“I’m in the middle of a swarm of bees,” I said when Mr. Brochu picked up, as one flew by my face. “You want to come and get them?”
The College of Staten Island is perhaps the greenest campus in CUNY, and I mean literally green: its 204 acres border the Greenbelt — the borough’s large, linked system of parks — and one could almost argue that it’s an honorary member of the Greenbelt. It’s not unusual to find shaggy mane mushrooms, lambsquarters and dandelions growing on the grounds. But a swarm of bees circling the footpaths? Several students and faculty members stared as they walked by.
The bees settled on a small tree, first in three vertical clumps, and then, within an hour, into two. The clumps were so alive, they appeared to be dripping, like succulent meat turning on a spit. By the time Mr. Brochu arrived with bee suits and a carrier in the back of his Dodge Durango, the swarm was a three-foot-long teardrop formation hanging off a single branch.
Mr. Brochu, who favors Australian-outback oilskin hats, said, “Oh my God, that’s 30,000 bees.” We zipped up our bee suits and got to work.
The insects were loud and frenetic. They were everywhere — landing on my facial netting and the shoulders and front of my suit. I’m allergic to everything from mosquito bites to pine nuts, and so I was afraid of getting stung, but I knew that the general campus procedure was to spray bee swarms to prevent attacks on students. If we didn’t remove it, the swarm might be jeopardized.
Moreover, swarms are relatively docile, and Mr. Brochu was quick about maneuvering the carrier bucket underneath them. I partially covered the top with a lid with a mesh cutout, until, in one swift movement, Mr. Brochu sawed through the branch and lowered it — bees and all — into the bucket.
It took about 30 seconds to contain the entire swarm, give or take the few hundred bees still circling around us.
Swarming, which often occurs in spring, is a hive’s natural means of reproducing. Once a queen and her colony have successfully produced a new virgin queen, the swarm — a majority of the workers, with the original queen in the center — alights on trees like temporary tenants before moving on to more permanent digs.
Mr. Brochu speculated that the original hive was probably living in the woodland that abutted campus. But Andrew Coté, president of the New York City Beekeepers’ Association, thought it came from a beekeeper’s overcrowded hive, saying, “The possibilities of it being a feral hive are almost impossible.” (Honeybees are not native to the United States.)
Honeybees across the country have increasingly been at risk since 2007. According to a study by the Apiary Inspectors of America, American hives decreased by 33.8 percent from October 2009 to April 2010. The report cited poor weather conditions, starvation and weak colonies as the main factors. But bees are increasingly at risk globally as well, and scientists continue to ponder why.
Diana Cox-Foster, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University, also lists many problems, including colony collapse disorder (where entire hives go missing), parasitic mites, loss of natural habitat, a one-trick diet (trucked-in bees pollinating single crops, like corn or blueberries), and an increase in pesticides.
These larger issues made it feel important to save this free-roaming swarm, so with the bees in the back seat, we drove to a private, woody area on the South Shore where Mr. Brochu could easily tend the hive.
As we sat in a field of mugwort, cleaning out an old hive box whose inhabitants sadly perished this year, Mr. Brochu said, “I’ve seen wild hive after wild hive destroyed this winter — gone.”
So when I called him about the swarm on campus, he was thrilled.
“I’ve been waiting for something like this,” he said, whacking the debris off a honeycomb frame before placing it back in the box.
After Mr. Brochu weeded the rangy mugwort away from the hive’s entrance, we zipped up our suits again and got to work.
Inside the carrier, the bees were clinging to the lid and one another. As Mr. Brochu carefully tipped them into the waiting hive box, I wondered about the queen. I couldn’t see her through the throngs of workers and drones, but I knew she was there in the middle, like some centripetal force drawing everything to her.
It was getting dark, and Mr. Brochu placed the lid back on the hive box. We watched the several hundred bees remaining outside the entrance of the hive wobble around in confusion. “They’ll settle and hopefully take to their new surroundings,” Mr. Brochu said.
In the fading light, we sat and talked, and minutes later saw the powers of the queen at work: the remaining honeybees filed into the bottom opening of their new home, just like operagoers receiving the call that intermission was over.