By Thea Vierling, beekeeper
Bees will swarm the darndest places.
This article is about the honeybees … I know, I titled it “Social Distancing” and I am sure you thought it was about the Coronavirus. But did you know that the honeybees in nature have been doing social distancing for years? I am talking about wild honeybees, feral hives. Honeybees prefer to live with a good distance between hives and they also prefer to live at least 15 feet off the ground. Their favorite homes are in trees about 12-15 feet off the ground. Why is this better? Many of their enemies live close to the ground like ants, mice, rats, small hive beetles, skunks, bears, yellow jackets and, yes, believe it or not, dragon flies. But also their diseases will be less likely to spread like an epidemic. Now that is how bees benefit from social distancing.
In the spring honeybees swarm, making new hives with new young queens. Swarming is similar to a household of people which gets too crowded, so some move out; usually the young folks move out and usually the old folks stay behind. Young people have trouble finding affordable housing and bees also have trouble finding housing. They are looking for trees with holes in them, big enough for a growing hive, with an opening that allows them to go in and out freely and safely. A lot of young folks have the same problem, only it is usually the price tag. Young people often move back in with their parents but bees cannot do that. (Some parents are probably thinking “if only” we were like the bees!) Bees have the same problems finding new homes but it is not the price tag. Many trees have been cut down or have died. The habitat of the bees has diminished with the expansion of human housing, housing developments, shopping malls and perfectly landscaped yards with no trees.
When bees decide to swarm, they send out scouts to look for places to make a new hive. If they cannot find areas for their new nests, they find holes in old barns, factories, wineries, schools and in people’s houses. Even your house could be a “perfect home” for that swarm! After a swarm leaves the mother hive, they will hang somewhere waiting until the scouts find a new place. Swarms usually hang in a tree but they can be found anywhere. We have found swarms hanging on a bicycle, a bush, a streetlight, the trunk of a car, or even under the cover of a barbecue grill sitting on a patio. If a swarm cannot find a permanent home, they will make that tree branch their permanent home. That swarm will never survive the winter out in the open with rain and cold weather.
Let’s get back to “social distancing” for beehives. Beekeepers need to think of several factors when they place their hives:
- How close they are together and to other bee hives;
- How close they are to flowers (which is the grocery store for the bees);
- How much sunlight the bees will get (all year long, because many diseases thrive in damp shady places;
- What neighbors are nearby who use pesticides (so harmful for the bees; even Roundup);
- Being mindful of where their flying space is so they don’t interfere with human behavior.
Beekeepers should not decide where to put their hives until they have looked at all these factors for a whole year. Wouldn’t you spend that long looking for a house to buy? So social distancing includes a lot of factors for the honeybees and for people.
Actually, if you look at all animals, there is a certain amount of “social distancing” they all need, especially domesticated animals. Most animals like the honeybees do their own social distancing very well. Look at polar bears, mountain lions, wolves and even our dogs and cats. Did you know that different species of dragonflies fly at different heights, so they don’t interfere with each other’s mating and foraging behaviors? All animals have their well-defined territories and they stick to those territories very closely. If they don’t, fighting and/or disease infestations can occur.
What social distancing is teaching us is that people have “territories” too and they are being tested now more than ever. The transmission of the coronavirus through people-to-people contact is teaching us a lot about many things other than transmission of disease. Personal space is important and our wonderful teachers in our school systems include that in their curriculum. We need to look at our distance between people, our behaviors in the grocery stores, our need for sunlight, our need for enjoying the beauty of spring, and the need for gardening sustainably without pesticides which are poisonous to animals.
So, be mindful of “social distancing” for our honeybees. Be mindful of their need for good housing, for great gardens for foraging, and for the pollination they do for the entire ecosystem. Be mindful especially in the spring, of their need to swarm. If you see a swarm, please call a beekeeper and we will come out to collect them and give them a good home.
Go to the website Sonomabees.org to report a swarm or call your local Kenwood beekeepers: Jim 707-481-3820, Erin 925-216-1106, Susan 925-408-4529, John 707-833-6776, or Thea 707-483-0426.