What is a Swarm of Bees and What Should I Do About It?

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Image: Mark Osgatharp.

In February my phone starts to ring with what I call “bee situations.” With that in mind I’m going to write a series of blog posts to explain some basic bee biology and what services beekeepers can provide when bees show up where they are not wanted. Most of what I describe will be universal, but some information will deal with the peculiarities of honeybees in a Mediterranean climate such as Los Angeles. Speaking of which, peak swarm season begins earlier here than in colder places and swarms can happen anytime of the year including our “winter.”

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Image: Wikipedia.

Basic Swarm Biology
Swarms are the way honeybee colonies reproduce. As with all matters related to the biology of the honeybee, it’s easier to think of a colony as a single super-organism rather than thousands of individuals. Swarming takes place when a colony decides to make a new queen. Once the new queen hatches, the old queen takes off with about half the workers. I’m oversimplifying here and leaving out the complexities of drones and queen mating, but thinking again of a colony as a super-organism, bee swarming is akin to a single celled organism that reproduces by dividing in two. I should note that many colonies, especially in Southern California, produce consecutive swarms but the idea of reproduction by division is still the same.

When the old queen and workers leave the original colony they have to find a new permanent home. Their natural preference is for a hollow portion of a tree. But they’ll take any dark enclosure with a small, easily defensible, entrance. In urban areas, in addition to tree cavities, they might choose the walls of buildings, utility boxes, compost bins and even the inner workings of hot tubs. But before a swarm can find permanent digs, they need a place for the swarm to hang out while the swarm’s scouts go off in search of the perfect home.

Where a swarm lands
When shopping for permanent real estate most swarms end up resting on a tree branch. But they can also pick an odd location, like a bike seat, a light pole or even a car bumper. So how can you tell when a bunch of bees are just visiting a spot temporarily? The answer is simple. Swarming bees don’t have any comb. They’re just hanging out in a big ball of workers with the queen in the center. If you don’t see comb, you know this swarm is just temporarily resting in that spot.

So you’ve got one of these big balls of bees on your tree/bike/fence/bumper! What do you do?
The best answer is to do nothing. Bees that have swarmed have no honey to protect and tend to be very docile (I’ll note an exception below). Odds are that they will move on in a few hours or a day or two at most. You don’t need to call anyone or panic.

The poignant thing about a swarm is that they only have a few days to find a home before they die of exposure and hunger. Swarming is a high risk, transitory state. Never fear that a bunch of swarming bees will end up hanging out in your yard permanently. They will move on, or they will die, and the time frame is just a few days.

If you absolutely must do something about it, please contact your local beekeeping association and obtain the services of a genuine beekeeper. Do not Google “beekeeper” as you will likely end up with a con artist (see my post on bee removal scams).

A reputable beekeeper will remove a swarm in one of three ways: by putting nuc box or bee box right next to the swarm and allowing them to move in on their own, by bumping the swarm into a bee box or other suitable container, or by using a bee vac and sucking them up. The beekeeper will then take the bees and install them in a bee box back in their apiary. My favored technique is to spray the swarm with sugar water (this keeps them distracted) and bump them into a portable “nuc” box. Here’s a video of our mentor, beekeeper Kirk Anderson, moving a swarm:

The con artist “beekeepers” will either spray them with poison, suck them into a vacuum and kill them or put them in a box and then just toss them out in a nearby park or vacant lot. And they’ll charge you much more than a real beekeeper would.

Bee temperament when swarming
As I already noted swarms are most often so docile that you can approach them without protective gear. But not always. A swarm that’s been hanging out for a long time without finding a permanent home can get slightly cranky. Note that I said slightly cranky. It’s not like they’re all going to suddenly attack you like a scene from that silly 1970s disaster movie “The Swarm.” More likely a cranky swarm will give you a gentle reminder to keep your distance–a sting or two. This is why I wear a bee suit when doing a swarm capture. But there is no reason to panic when a swarm shows up!

What is not a “swarm”
In an established bee colony, once a day every day, the young bees do what is called an orientation flight. During orientation, hundreds of bees come out and fly around in circles in front of the entrance to the hive. They are learning the location of their home so that when they become foragers, they will know where to return to. Sometimes this behavior is confused with a swarm, but it is not. Orienting bees will not cluster anywhere, and the orientation session only lasts a short while.

So if you see dozens but not thousands of bees flying around in circles, you are also not witnessing a swarm. There is probably a hive nearby and you are witnessing an orientation. Another possibility is that you might also be seeing wasps or hornets, not honeybees. Here’s what wasps look like and what you should do about them (hint: nothing).

Help, the swarm is African and we’re all gonna die!
Calm down. I can’t speak for all the bees in Africanized bee country (the southern part of the U.S., Mexico, Central and South America) but the bees here in Los Angeles that you see swarming are likely Africanized, but they aren’t killers. I will be dealing with the Africanized controversy in another post, but trust me, I’ve never kept European bees and have always kept the local Africanized bees and I’ve not found them to be overly aggressive at least here in Southern California. You can’t tell Africanized bees from European bees without a DNA test and I’ll note that there are plenty of aggressive European colonies too. But please don’t let anyone panic about the swarm on your tree because they are “African.” They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Help, I’ve got a swarm of bees and I’m calling Root Simple!
Here’s what I will and will not do. If a swarm lands in an easily accessible location and I need a hive or I know someone who does I’m happy to come pick them up as long as you are in central Los Angeles. If they are on a high branch, I can’t get them unless you’re an institution that owns a lift and you can get me up there safely. In that case just wait a few days and they’ll take off on their own. If you’re in the LA area and need a reputable beekeeper please contact Honey Love.

Those times the swarm sticks around
Very rarely a swarm that has landed in a tree can’t find a home and decides to start building comb right where they are (here’s what this looks like). This is a warm climate issue. Honeybees in the tropics build colonies like this. In our Mediterranean climate the odds are they won’t survive this strategy as it’s a little too cold here in the winter, and the rain can cause the comb to break and fall to the ground. When you have one of these freak exterior bee colonies you need to call a beekeeper to deal with the situation.

Have you witnessed a swarm? Have you seen a swarm where you work? How did you or your colleagues react?

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Varroa Mites: No-Treatment is the Best Treatment

Drone pupae with varroa mites. Image: Wikipedia.

Drone pupae with varroa mites. Image: Wikipedia.

The narrative in the mainstream press about beekeeping tends to be about brave and environmentally conscious beekeepers fighting the scourge of big ag’s pesticides. But the truth is far messier. Step into the world of beekeeping and what you’ll find is a swarm of acrimonious finger pointing and a heavy reliance, by conventional beekeepers, on pesticides. Why would beekeepers use pesticides? Varroa mites.

The varroa mite is a tiny blood sucking parasite that hops on individual bees and infests whole colonies. Originally from Java, varroa first appeared in the United States in 1987. By far the number one topic at any conventional beekeeping conference is the varroa mite. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson likes to quip that the singular obsession with varroa is “like going to dog show where everyone only talks about fleas.”

One of the controversial aspects of what’s come to be called “backwards” (named after an essay by Charles Martin Simon and taught by Anderson) beekeeping has been two practices: keeping feral bees for their believed varroa resistance and not treating bees in order to favor stronger colonies.

Let’s first define what a “feral” bee is. Honey bees are not native to the Americas. They were, most likely, brought here by the Spanish. Since that introduction, some honey bees escaped tended apiaries and took up residence in forests and cities where they have lived, happily, for centuries without much human intervention. To clarify, when I say “feral” bees I mean untended honey bees (Apis mellifera) not any of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America such as carpenter bees and bumblebees.

Most conventional beekeepers buy or breed their own colonies and queens. Backwards beekeepers collect swarms and remove and relocate feral colonies. When it comes to varroa mite these feral colonies have gone through a process of natural selection. When varroa arrived in the Americas, no doubt, many feral colonies died out. But the ones that had natural resistance survived. Over time feral colonies have developed hygiene practices that greatly reduce the varroa problem. They still have varroa, but they don’t succumb to it.

Most controversially, natural, backwards beekeepers such as myself do not treat our bees for mites, believing that such treatment interferes with the microbiome of the colony and leads to bees that lack natural resistance to varroa. No-treatment beekeepers don’t even use so-called “natural” treatments such as dusting with powdered sugar or essential oils.

A technological solution to varroa?
A recent article in Wired Magazine profiled Jerry Hayes, A Swarm of Controversy In Their Struggle for Survival Against Killer Mites, Bees Get an Unlikely Ally: Monsanto. Hayes was a state beekeeping inspector in Florida and an advice columnist in the American Bee Journal before taking a job with Monsanto. The article looks at Hayes’s work at Monsanto which uses RNA interference (RNAi) to target varroa. It’s easy to see why Hayes would be interested in RNAi technology. It has the potential to knock out varroa mite without the many problems of current miticides. Critics of RNAi, however, bring up the issue of risk management: the unintended consequences of using a novel technology such as RNAi. If something did go wrong it could go very wrong, what some scientists refer to as an “oops” moment.

The ideas in the article, like much science reporting in the mainstream press, suffer, in my opinion from what Nassim Taleb calls the “technological salvation fallacy,” the idea that solutions are always technological. It’s an approach that Taleb criticizes as “blind to risk.” It goes hand in hand with an 18th century Enlightenment narrative of continuous improvement that, I believe, is proving incredibly dangerous (see climate change, nuclear weapons, industrialized genocide etc.). To step out of this Hegelian view of history is, in our contemporary culture, to be a crank a description I’ve come to embrace.

My cranky advice for beekeepers
A prescient 1998 paper in the Journal California Agriculture predicted,

It is unlikely that European bees will evolve resistance [to varroa] because commercial beekeepers must treat their colonies with miticides to stay in business. Varroa eliminate feral European colonies that are then replaced either with AHB [Africanized honeybees] or with European colonies derived from nonresistant commercial colonies. In the end, AHB will spread to their ecological limits, wherever they may be.

The future predicted in that article has arrived. I have heard, from three sources in the natural beekeeping community, that conventional beekeepers are secretly buying feral AHB colonies and queens. The reason is simple. AHB colonies live with and don’t succumb to varroa because they were never treated for the problem.

My experience is limited to Southern California and I’ve only kept (well mannered) AHBs. But the no-treatment approach is not limited to AHB. Here’s what Michael Bush has to say about no-treatment beekeeping in an article on his website, Four simple steps to healthier bees,

What is the upside of not treating? You don’t have to buy the treatments. You don’t have to drive to the yard and put the treatments in and drive to the yard to take them out. You don’t have to contaminate your wax. You don’t upset the natural balance by killing off micro and macro organisms that you weren’t targeting but who are killed by the treatments anyway. That would seem like upside enough, but you also give the ecosystem of the bee hive a chance to find some natural balance again.

But the most obvious up side is that until you quit treating you can’t breed for survival against whatever your issues are. As long as you treat you prop up weak genetics and you can’t tell what weaknesses they have. As long as you treat you keep breeding weak bees and super mites. The sooner you stop, the sooner you start breeding mites adapted to their host and bees who can survive with them.

The treatment vs. no-treatment issue is so tribal in nature that, perhaps, we will have to wait for the pro-treatment technological salvationists to depart, along with Elon Musk, for those Martian colonies (good luck with that one guys) and leave us treatment-free beekeepers in peace on good old planet Earth.

The Great Beekeeping Debate

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Of all the subjects we cover on this blog none is as controversial as beekeeping. I think most outsiders would be surprised as just how testy things get when conventional and natural beekeepers bump into each other. It’s a debate every bit as heated as gun control or abortion.

The two sides are divided on a number of practices. Probably the most important is the issue of whether or not to treat bees for diseases and pests (most notably, varroa mites). Other issues include the use of foundation, keeping feral bees, re-queening and the type of bee housing. Even within each camp there’s a kind of spectrum between a hyper-interventionist stance and a hands-off approach. Some “natural” beekeepers treat their bees with essetial oils, for instance.

But I think the divide is more philosophical. It’s about systems thinking versus an overly reductionist stance. Reductionsim and systems thinking, in fact, can be complimentary. In science you take apart a problem to look at individual causes and effects. But you must, at some point, put those parts together to look at the whole. As the alchemical saying goes, “solve et coagula,” “dissolve and join together.” Reductionism is fine and useful. What’s not good is the arrogance that comes from thinking that since you understand part of the problem you understand the whole and can immediately start applying technological solutions. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out in his books The Black Swan and Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, monkeying with complex systems from a point of ignorance leads to horrible, unintended consequences.

Take the issue of varroa mite treatments. Let’s say you test a miticide’s toxicity on bees. You expose the bees to the miticide. The mites die and the bees live. Success! But . . . the unforeseen. What if that treatment wreaks havoc on the microbiology of the hive? What about a chemical’s effect on the symbiotic relationships with those microorganisms and their bee hosts? What happens when the mites develop resistance to the miticide? What happens when propped-up weak bees swarm and establish themselves in the midst of a feral population? These are all difficult to understand long term questions that highlight the danger of moving quickly from an isolated study into an immediate application. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has written and lectured extensively on these issues.

Natural and conventional beekeepers are also asking different questions. I’ll be frank. The California State Beekeeper’s Association meeting that I attended in 2015 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It really should have been called the Almond Pollinator’s Association meeting. It was all about facilitating the pollination of California’s unsustainable 1 million acres of almonds. Those million acres are pollinated by at least 1.7 million beehives that have to be trucked out of state every year once the almond pollination season is over. Speaker after speaker blamed natural beekeepers for their disease problems. Retired UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen brought the ad hominem attacks to a fevered pitch by calling natural beekeepers, “hippies” and “bee-havers.” I haven’t heard “hippie” used this way since Spiro Agnew left this mortal coil. And Agnew would have been right at home with an organization that still has a ladies auxiliary in 2016 (in contrast to natural beekeeping organizations I’ve seen that are integrated and, in fact, made up of a solid majority of women).

The question of how we pollinate millions of acres of monocultured crops in different parts of the country is a different question than how to keep a few hives in a biodiverse urban area. To be fair, the first question is essential since it’s how we currently keep everyone fed. But much of the advice given to large scale beekeepers does not always apply to small scale backyard beekeepers.

The hubris can go both ways. Those of us on the natural beekeeping side can also think we understand the whole better than we do. We can fall into the same reductionist traps. Just because a mite treatment is “natural,” such as dousing a hive in essential oils, does not mean that it’s healthy for the bees. We also must not lose sight of the fact that we are in a relationship with honeybees that goes back many thousands of years. They aren’t exactly wild animals in most places and may depend, to varying degrees, on our support. Someday we might reach a kind of sweet spot between highly interventionist and low intervention beekeeping methods. My bet is that it’s on the low intervention side of the equation, but only time will tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Beware of Bee Removal Scams

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If you’ve got bees living in your wall you’ve got three options: leave them in place, call a beekeeper to remove them or an exterminator to kill them. The best choice is just to leave them in place as long as they aren’t bothering anyone. The second best choice is to call a beekeeper to open up the wall, remove the bee comb and bees and take them away. I did a post on how a bee removal like this is done.

I suspect most people reading this blog will not want to call an exterminator. On top of killing a living, sentient being, an exterminator will leave all the honey in the wall. The honey will attract pests and, possibly, drip through your wall or ceiling. Bees left in place will not let their honey drip or get robbed by mice.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of fraudulent bee removal companies out there who promise “humane” removal but who actually just use chemical fumigants to force the bees to abscond. Colonies forced out this way are nearly certain to die. Having done a lot of cutouts it’s easy to see why fly by night companies do this. Proper bee removal is a lot of work and many property owners aren’t willing to pay what it’s worth do a bee removal properly.

If you need a bee removal service do not just Google “bee removal.” The same sort of scam going on with locksmiths is going on with bee removal services. A panicked homeowner with a bee situation makes an easy target. Bee removal scammers, just like the locksmith scammers, show up and start jacking up the price. Then they do substandard, possibly dangerous, work.

If you’ve got a bee problem look up your local beekeeping association or club and ask for a referral. If you’re an LA local you can contact HoneyLove or send me an email through this website. If you’re in my part of town and the work doesn’t involve ladders, I might be able to help.

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Is Honey the Same as Sugar?

Photo by Hans/Pixabay.

Photo by Hans/Pixabay.

This weekend’s natural beekeeping conference, put on by HoneyLove, was informative and inspiring. On the blog this week I thought we’d take a look at some of the issues brought up at the conference beginning with the research of Dr. May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Berenbaum’s specialty, for many years, was the interaction of plants and insects. Her interest in bees began with her frustration with the common idea that honey is nutritionally indistinguishable from sugar. In her presentation, in chart after chart, she showed the huge difference in the biochemistry of different honey varietals. Take, for instance, antioxidant levels. It turns out that darker types of honey, such as buckwheat, have a lot more antioxidants than lighter varieties like citrus honey (the exception to this rule is sunflower honey which is both light and high in antioxidants).

The same differences can be found with the antimicrobial properties of honey. Manuka honey, produced in Australia and New Zealand has the highest antimicrobial levels of any type of honey. But, Berenbaum warned, there’s a lot of fake Manuka honey on the market.

One of the most mind bending bits of research Berenbaum described was the discovery that some sources of nectar contain chemicals that can help a beehive recover from toxins and that the bees themselves self-diagnose and then seek out these nectar sources. Just think about that! Unfortunately, she also noted that agricultural states like Illinois, where she lives, lack the nectar source biodiversity that bees need to stay healthy. It’s a state made up, almost entirely, of corn and soy fields.

Her talk was somewhat of an indictment against one of the common practices of conventional beekeepers: feeding bees sugar. The problem is that these simple sugars lack many of the biochemical components found in honey that bees need to stay toxin-free and robust.

Berenbaum did not discuss the impacts of honey on human health but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that those higher antioxidant levels in dark honeys are probably better for us too.

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