Bee happy—it’s swarm season

Col—Green

Col—Green

A European honey bee extracts nectar from a flower.

Honey bees haven’t had an easy go of it lately and this past winter was especially tough. One beekeeper I know lost four out of his six hives. He allowed me to tag along on an early-spring inspection and the sight of a cluster of dead bees within inches of the honey that should have sustained them until the dandelions bloomed, was enough to break my heart.
Honey bee populations have been in decline for years. What’s now commonly known as Colony Collapse Disorder can be blamed on a range of problems from habitat loss, to parasitic varroa mites and a bunch of ugly viruses, to a debilitating susceptibility to certain pesticides. Native pollinators are also in trouble due in large part to habitat loss. We gardeners can help pollinators, both native and imported (honey bees are European), by providing safe havens: planting gardens free from pesticides and full of their favorite flowers.
I do my best to provide forage for Bristol’s bees (honey bees travel about 2 miles from the hive for decent nectar and pollen) at least until frost. There’s plenty to be had everywhere right now. Most bee species love black locust trees, roses, nepeta, and the dandelions and clover in lawns like mine. But come July, beekeepers lament a dearth. Pollinating insects are why my July garden, when I’m too hot to care much about aesthetics, blooms with mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.) coneflower (Echinacea spp.), and anise hyssop (Agastache spp.). Even though I relish late-summer-into-fall color, it’s the bees who truly appreciate it when calamintha, Joe-pye weed, salvias, asters, black-eyed Susans, and dahlias flower in my garden.
The very least anyone (even non-gardeners) can do is get excited—happy-excited, rather than terrified-excited—when we see a swarm. Swarming is a healthy honey bee colony’s propagation method and it’s worthy of a huzzah! Especially after a winter like this past one.
When a colony is preparing to swarm (the season usually lasts from May into June) they build out cells on the comb for a few larval queens, one of whom is destined to become that hive’s new matriarch. After those “swarm cells” have been capped, most of the inhabitants take off with the old queen. She finds a place to wait with her workers clustered around her while a few scouts head out in all directions to look for a new home. It could take anywhere from hours to days for them to find one and when they do, the scouts perform a waggle dance to map the location. So cool.
In case swarms make you as nervous as they once made me, let me reassure you that they’re not as scary as they look. Despite a chaotic-looking swirl of thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of stinging insects that eventually gloms onto a tree branch or swing set in a massive squirming clot, they are docile when they swarm. That’s because they gorge on honey before leaving the hive. They’re simply too full to put up much of a fight. (Same is true when beekeepers smoke a hive before inspection. Thinking their house is on fire, bees tank up in case they need to evacuate.) Just stand back a ways to take in the view of Nature at her most fascinating.
Beekeepers generally try to prevent their hives from swarming because a large colony, when given room to grow, will produce more honey than it can use. But to the same beekeepers, someone else’s capture-able swarm is the very best kind of freebie. It’s in the bees best interest to be rescued (especially before they decide to build comb and store honey in the walls of your house) because colonies stand a much better chance of survival and growth when they’re under the care of someone who regularly checks their hives for infestation and disease.
So if you are lucky enough to have a swarm in your yard, for goodness’ sake don’t call an exterminator. Use The Rhode Island Beekeepers Association website at www.ribeekeeper.org to find a beekeeper eager to remove it (some charge a fee) and give those precious and threatened pollinators a happy new home.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.

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