There is a great deal of talk about save our bees . Indeed, we need to protect our bees because they are beneficial. The majority of our crops require pollination by insects, and bees are among the best pollinators. As individuals, bumble bees are probably the best pollinators, but honey bees rank very high in the numbers of plants pollinated. This is because there are so many bees and they service a large number of flowers. If we were to lose our honey bees, our food supply would be cut drastically and would be limited to only a few foods.
The good news is that there is no reason to believe that we might lose our bees within a short time, but we need to protect bees now while they are plentiful.
There have always been dangers to bee colonies. One winter I lost half my hives to cold and mice. An earlier winter, my neighbor, a serious bee keeper with 30 active hives, was wiped out by an unusually cold winter. Bees have predators ranging from bears to mice to microscopic mites. The larger predators destroy hives physically or eat the larvae. The very small predators attack individual bees, but this weakens the colony. Bees also have diseases that can weaken a colony or even destroy it. Very cold weather can kill larvae directly or can simply cause a colony to run out of food.
More recently, bees have been at risk because of sudden colony collapse (SCC) or colony collapse disorder (CCD). Hives with with strong colonies suddenly are empty without signs of a large die off of bees or any signs of disease or predator attack. Researchers suspect it might be a virus, but they are still working on the syndrome. There have been efforts to quarantine the shipment of bees from regions with high incidence of SCC. A few geographic regions have lost almost all of their bees, presumably due to SCC. This is a problem, but not yet a catastrophic epidemic. Some researchers have found clues to prevention of SCC.
Insecticides also put bees at risk. Bees can tolerate some insecticides, but others are highly toxic to them. We need to be careful to only use insecticides according to directions, and never by random application.
Related to this is the increase in genetically modified organisms (GMO). Some GMO plants are more vigorous because the GMO plant has the ability to generate its own insecticides. In some cases this is not a threat to bees, but other plants generate compounds that kill bees. Some established bee keepers have had to move their hives because of large losses of bees when neighbors plant certain GMO crops. The use of GMO crops needs to be investigated closer.
While it is popular to be politically active against insecticides and GMO plants, the biggest impact an individual can have on the bee population is to report swarms. A bee keeper can easily capture a swarm of bees and install them into a hive to become productive bees.
Swarming is nature’s way of protecting bee colonies from overcrowding, and at the same time increasing the number of bee colonies.
Each colony had one and only one queen. She is the only bee in the colony who can lay eggs and will lay up to 2000 eggs a day. If a queen dies, the colony faces extinction, but worker bees have the ability to feed large amounts of royal jelly to extremely young larvae. As a result they grow into queens. Typically, when a colony loses its queen, a half a dozen or more queen larvae are started. The first one to hatch, kills the rest and becomes queen.
A colony swarms when it becomes overcrowded in whatever shelter it uses for a hive. By some signal humans are not aware of, the workers start queen larvae as though the queen had died. Then about a week before the new queen hatches, the old queen departs with about half of the population of the hive. They fill their stomachs with honey and fly, as a hoard, a short distance, 100 yards to ¼ mile and rest. Typically they rest on a tree limb but any surface will do. The bees cling together into a ball with the queen safely tucked in the middle. These bees are primarily busy trying to stay together and to protect the queen. While swarming, the bees seldom sting unless directly provoked. They will rest in a swarm formation for up to 36 hours. During this time the bees can be swept into a box and carried off. This should be done by a bee keeper who will then put them in an empty hive box in his beeyard where they can take up residence.
Far too many people panic and spray the swarm with insecticide thinking the bees might attack them. Here is where the public can SAVE THE BEES. Simply leave the bees alone and call for a bee keeper. Local bee keeper associations keep lists of bee keepers prepared to collect swarms. Each spring I send memos to police departments and to the 911 dispatch center. If you do not know the name of a bee keeper or the phone number of your local bee keeper’s association, call 911. I get about half of my calls through the 911 dispatchers.
While waiting for a bee keeper, stand back a respectful distance and watch the show. Some bees will fly off the cluster and return after a very short flight. Others will move a short distance causing the cluster of bees to change shape. Keep other people away from the swarm, and be on the lookout to help guide the bee keeper to the swarm. The bee keeper will sweep the entire swarm into a collection box. If he is successful in capturing the queen, most of those bees who did not get swept into the box will follow the box, many sitting on the outside all the way back to my bee yard.
Some bee keepers charge a nominal fee. I am told I should charge $35 for my services, but I am glad to obtain a new colony of bees, and some of my clients are of limited means so I charge no fee. In any event, by calling a bee keeper, you have protected a colony of bees from being killed.
While the swarm of bees is resting, a small number of scout bees are looking for a new home for the colony. If the swarm is not collected by a bee keeper, the entire swarm will take to wing and follow the scout to the location the scout has found. It may be a hollow tree, a hole in a wall, or a box with an opening. There they will establish a hive for the colony.
A problem occurs when the colony moves into a hole in the wall of a building such as a residence. Generally people do not appreciate bees flying in and out of a hole in their house. Once the hive is established guard bees at the entrance are more than prepared to sting people they see as a threat. Exterminators will kill the colony for a fee of several hundred dollars. For a slightly larger fee, one can hire a bee keeper who is prepared to remove the colony alive. Unfortunately, there is usually the need to open a wall which results in further costs. This is another way to save the bees.
Rather than run the risk of bees residing where they do not belong, I build swarm traps. This is a box that has all the attributes the scout bees are looking for. I have observed scout bees looking at the swarm trap. A few hours later, the box will be alive with activity as the bees settle in. When there is activity in one of my swarm traps, I dump the bees into a modern bee hive and have a new colony of bees in my beeyard. I have trapped as many as three swarms in a single season in the trap near my back door.
I lease traps to people and businesses in my locality who do not want to be invaded by bees. When activity is visible in the trap, I service it. I am willing to share the design upon request, but be aware that a swarm trap is of limited usefulness unless there is a bee keeper to service it.
To save the bees, become politically active if you have the talent, but everyone can help save the bees by reporting swarms. Each time a swarm of bees is collected by a bee keeper or caught in a trap, that colony is given a high probability to become a productive colony.
Long live the Queen bee.
Swarming season in New Mexico is usually April through June, but I have seen swarms as early as mid March and as late as mid August. Please be prepared to observe and report swarms. Further north, add a month for states like Kansas and add 2 months for Wisconsin.
Requests about a swarm trap or about bee keeping may be sent using the reply feature on his website, ReynoldConger.com.
Reynold Conger is a retired scientist, engineer and teacher who gardens and keeps bees. He also writes fiction. His books are available through on line book stores. For information about Reynold’s books, see ReynoldConger.com.