Honeybees are calling
By Thea Vierling
Yes, it’s that time of year again, when the honeybees begin to swarm. What is swarming? It’s the way honeybees make new hives. The queen bee leaves the hive with half of the bees and moves to a new location. The remaining bees stay behind in the original hive and create a new queen and, voila, you now have two hives out of one! It is a lot like when the kids move out of the house and get their own apartment. The big difference is that sometimes the kids return home, but the bees do not.
Swarming is the single most important time in a beekeeper’s life, but it’s one of the most dangerous times for the bees. Bees are very vulnerable at this time. They leave the hive where there is food to eat, shelter from the rain, lots of babies to feed and lots of heat generated by their sisters, the worker bees. They leave for the “great unknown” with the hope that there will be a home for all of them. They go out and hang from tree limbs, from buildings, from parked cars, even from an old rose bush. And they wait. They wait for their scout bees to come back and tell them they’ve found a new home. But it’s cold out there and the dangers are many. Birds eat them, kids who don’t understand their importance throw rocks at them, adults who don’t know better spray them. All of this is out of fear. If the swarm is low to the ground, skunks can eat them, and if they are high in a tree opossums can eat them, too. And, of course, if the scout bees do not find a good spot to make a new home, they may hang there all night in the cold, only to start looking again the next day.
Only 20 percent of swarms successfully find new homes. Why? The reasons are many, but the biggest reason is loss of habitat. There are fewer trees around with large cavities for the bees to find and make a home. The recent fires and wind storms, which destroyed so many trees, have compounded the problem.
The Beekeepers Association of Sonoma County (SCBA) has created five different groups around the county to help the bees and the beekeepers. The groups are geographically based: North, South, East, West and Central. Here in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Sonoma, our group is called “East SCBA Cluster” and we have about 70 members. Our two coordinators, Lauri Dorman and Susan Simmons, coordinate instructional meetings, social gatherings, and hive dives, where we go into various hives in our area and learn how to be better beekeepers. They also lead a swarm catchers group, along with Lizanne Pastore, our local expert. If a swarm is reported, the coordinators call local beekeepers to go out and collect them as soon as possible. Believe it or not, the bees stand a much better chance to survive if we collect them and put them in hive boxes. Plus, collecting the swarm means they won’t head into a hole in your wall or under the hood of your car. Once, we had a swarm go into an old filing cabinet that was left outside. I wonder if they were looking for old house plans so they could easily enter houses.
Local beekeepers were hard hit in the October fires. Many lost everything, including their hives and bees. But there’s some good news: bees can often make it through a fire, unless a hive burns completely to the ground. The bees stay inside while it burns outside and eat a lot of honey. They do this in their native oak tree hives as well, and because the bark is so much thicker than a beekeepers hive, their chances of survival are better. A few of Lizanne’s hives in Glen Ellen survived because the fire swept under the wooden boxes so quickly. The wood was singed but the bees miraculously survived. Lauri lost all of her five hives in the fire this past October, which was very painful to say the least.
One Kenwood beekeeper had her entire beehive topple over in the winds. She went out to check on it because of the wind and there it was, a mess of bees and boxes all over the place. It was 10 p.m. so she rushed inside to get her bee veil and a flashlight. Working with the flashlight in her mouth so she could lift the boxes back in place, her veil was too close to her face and she received some nasty bee stings on her nose. Ouch! But her bees survived, even though the house closeby was burned to the ground.
In terms of “wild” beehives in trees, we won’t know until we see more of what the swarm season looks like. We are all hoping that these feral hives survived and that there will be a lot of swarms.
The survival of the bees is important to all of us, not just beekeepers. Bees pollinate our food sources and make honey and wax for products like ointments, lotions and candles. Right now all of our fruit trees are blooming and they need the honeybees to grow fruit. On a warm day, walk under a tree in full bloom and you can hear an amazing “buzz” from all the bees. They won’t sting you because they are taking advantage of the weather to gather pollen and nectar to feed all of the babies and adults in their hive.
We hope you will all help us save the honeybees. The most important thing you can do to help right now is report swarms. Keep an eye out and call us if you see a swarm. If you lose the telephone numbers below, you can also google “swarms in Sonoma county” and it will take you to the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association website, www.sonomabees.org, which lists the numbers of many beekeepers here in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Sonoma. Here are the phone numbers of our local Kenwood/Glen Ellen swarm-catching team:
These are all local folks. We have a lot of swarm catchers in Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Sonoma. Help us help the honeybees. They need you and we need you.