Although the sight of a giant ball of buzzing bees dangling from your backyard arbor may appear frightful, swarming honeybees are known to be docile.
“Don’t panic because they probably aren’t going to stay there long,” says Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology. “Now if they settle in your fireplace, that’s a different issue.”
According to Kimsey, swarms occur in spring and summer when healthy bee colonies grow to have too many workers and produce a second queen.
“If the colonies are strong enough, they build up really big and then it’s time to split,” Kimsey explains. “The queen leaves and then they follow.”
Swarms usually cluster together on low-lying branches before scalper bees communicate their excitement and direction of their newfound hive — usually performed as a figure-eight dance upon the backs of the worker bees. When the swarm has reached a consensus on their new home, the bees will leave together en route for their new real estate.
“If it’s late in the day, they might find a place to stay for the night,” says Kimsey, who also serves as director of UCD’s Bohart Museum of Entomology. “They may stay for a day, maybe two.”
Last year, Davis Bee Charmers founder Derek Downey removed more than 60 swarms in the first half of 2012.
“You want to get there quick,” says Downey, who maintains a wait list of 50 to 60 potential backyard beekeepers who are ready to adopt a colony. “If they move into someone’s house, chimney, birdhouse or tree, it’s much harder to remove bees once they’ve decided on a home.”
Downey created the Davis Bee Sanctuary in spring 2011, a beekeeping demonstration garden on Orchard Park Circle where he offers workshops on natural beekeeping amid an overgrown blackberry bramble and other native plants that support pollinating insects.
“I get a lot of calls from the (UC) campus or the city directly because they know I’ll be there in 10 minutes,” the 26-year-old bee charmer says.
Downey says swarms can weigh 1 to 10 pounds — each pound is equivalent to 4,000 worker bees. Newfound hives must allow the colony to store enough food to survive the winter when flowering plants are hard to come by.
“I think native bees are more important for us to consider than honeybees,” Downey says. “We always like honeybees because they give us honey, but if you are thinking about pollination, it’s good to have back-up species because this species is in trouble.”
More than 60 different bee species call Davis home. The European honeybee — which is used commercially for the pollination of a third of all food produced — has received public attention due to colony collapse disorder.
“This is a big problem,” Kimsey says.
According to Kimsey, parasites like Varroa mites and diseases may wipe out a colony, but it doesn’t explain why adult bees would abandon the queen and the brood as they do with CCD.
Insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, affect bees’ orientation and communication with the hive.
“We know that some of the insecticides would probably have an effect on them,” Kimsey says. “Maybe it doesn’t kill the adult bees, but most of the insecticides are fat-soluble. Adult bees become exposed and it may come out in the wax they produce … and the baby bees are exposed to that.”
Malnutrition also plays a role in bees’ survival. Honeybees used for the pollination of agricultural crops are trucked coast to coast and fed a sugary substitute to survive the journey. California is the largest consumer of honeybee pollination services. Once the bees are set up on agricultural land, they often only have one crop to feed from due to monoculture cultivation.
Different plants have unique food values. Providing honeybees with only one type of food source does not offer the variety of nutrients they require. In late summer and fall, there are limited flowering plants to forage, leaving bees going into winter with poor quality food reserves to survive winter, Kimsey says.
“Inbreeding is probably the single biggest problem,” she says.
In 1902, the USDA made it illegal to bring in honeybees from abroad, shutting down any new genetic material coming into the United States.
“Queen breeders are looking for certain traits,” Kimsey says. “They are … narrowing the genetic pool because there are certain attributes that they like — like big fluffy yellow bees. Now you’ve created the Maltese or Pekinese of the bee variety.”
Kimsey says even though there are several possible reasons, there still isn’t one explanation of bees’ demise.
“My favorite explanation is probably the rapture of cell phones,” Kimsey says with a laugh, referring to the urban legend that cell phones are responsible for colony collapse disorder.
While the number area honeybees is dropping, there is still the possibility of new hives forming and swarming into area neighborhoods.
“People know how important (bees) are,” Downey says. “They don’t want to kill them and they are pretty happy to find a beekeeper or somebody like me that will make sure they find a new home.”
For more information, contact Downey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-694-2405.