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Honeybees: Eye of the Swarm

“A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay; A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon; A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.” – Old English saying

Spring is the time when a young bee’s thoughts turn to swarm. Honeybees primarily swarm for the same reason people move: they’ve outgrown their home. If you are fortunate enough to have encountered one of nature’s most formidable teeming masses, you know it is an impressive sight to behold. Beekeepers will tell you that a honeybee swarm is worth its weight in gold — not such an exaggeration, given its importance to our ecosystem. Beekeepers will also tell you that most swarms are not to be feared but should be regarded from a distance, with caution and respect — true also of the individual bee.

The uninitiated might respond to the unexpected sight of a vibrating, basketball-sized mass dangling from or clinging to unexpected places by running fast in the opposite direction. No need to run, unless they’re chasing you, which honeybees seldom are unless provoked. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of people, who far too often may demonstrate more damaging impulses.

Since becoming a Napa Valley beekeeper, each spring I have witnessed a uniquely 21st-century swarming phenomenon: a series of email communication among beekeepers alerting the few and ready to swarm-capture opportunities.

A few weeks ago, while sitting at my computer, I observed such a techno-swarm. The emails flew fast and furious, first notifying local beekeepers of a large (basketball-sized) swarm in the front yard tree of a Napa home, immediately followed by communiqués from eager beekeepers saying, “I’m on my way,” followed almost as quickly by the unfortunate notification about the swarm (which may contain several hundred to several thousand honeybees) having been torched by an impatient gardener.

I guess he couldn’t wait.

This response is not uncommon but is unnecessary. Nose-diving global honeybee population over the past few years has resulted in beekeepers redoubling their efforts to prevent loss of life. Thus, there is no shortage of experienced beekeepers in virtually every county in Northern California, ready, willing and extremely eager to collect a swarm at large.

Honeybees are at their most docile when swarming, but not all swarms are created equal. Africanized bees are among us in the U.S.A, migrating up from Brazil since about 1990. They are significantly more aggressive than the other more agreeable breeds (Italian, German, Carniolan and Caucasian) that have made up the majority of the U.S. population for the past several decades. While the ferocity of these bees (Tanzanian/European hybrids developed by a Brazilian biologist in 1957) has been exaggerated, the Africanized honeybee can be dangerous, and is physically indistinguishable from its more benign cousins. The solution: keep your distance and call a professional.

If you encounter a swarm

In Shasta County, call (530) 224-4949, or visit the website of the Shasta County Department of Agriculture.

Know your swarm

Bees swarm when they outgrow their home, whether it is the over-crowded tree stump of a feral colony or the well-tended hive of the managed stationary hive down the road. Understandably, conscientious beekeepers prefer to keep their bees at home, and manage colonies to eliminate the need to leave home. Sometimes, however, bees get the jump on the beekeeper and take wing in search of new, roomier digs.

Swarming is a natural part of hive life but nonetheless puts the swarm in jeopardy and can deplete the stay-behind colony to the point of no return. To prepare, the established queen ceases egg-laying (up to 2,000 eggs daily) in order to slim down and marshal resources. This frees up nurse bees to engage in other preparatory chores. Scout bees are sent out to find a suitable new home, one that must be dry, enclosed, draft-free and out of harm’s way, beyond the reach of natural predators such as skunks, bears, domestic animals, humans, robber bees, and other flying unfriendlies.

Scout bees may take several days to find a clean, dry, protected and draft-free home. When the scouts find a suitable home, they return to the hive and do a dance of communication that conveys the exact geographic coordinates. When a sufficient number of returning scouts bees reach consensus, the mature queen (as opposed to the newly hatched queen, probably still a virgin that has yet to make her maiden flight to mate with another colony’s drone so she may begin laying the eggs of the next generation) and the majority of the colony, usually the strongest, take flight.

Honeybees are docile when swarming because they have no hive to guard, and their bellies are full with nectar or honey, necessary for nourishment and creation of wax because every drop of honey and every bee will be needed when they land. A sting may hurt us, but it kills the bee. (Only females can sting, and only females can forage. Males, the drones, are strictly stay-at-homes, unless they are part of a swarm.) Time is of the essence, so if scouts are unable to find a permanent home, the swarm must temporarily relocate. This explains stationary swarms hanging from tree branches, clinging to the underside of picnic tables, roof eaves, doghouses, parking meters and stop signs. Scouts continue the search and typically find a permanent home within a week or so.

Call a professional: it’s the best advice regardless what sort of honeybee swarm you encounter. A swarm inside walls is another topic for another day. Removal of interior colonies is more painstaking, but killing them (which, sadly, is recommended on some university websites) is wrong, not necessarily the easiest way out. Whether outdoors or inside a structure, swarms should be handled by professional, experienced beekeepers.

Bethany Chamberlain is a Napa Valley marketing consultant, writer, beekeeper and bee-lover. This is her first contribution to A News Café.