This is the time of year you might spot the beautiful, majestic dance of the honeybees
Most swarming activity takes place from April through May. Bees don't swarm during the rain, so this year we will most likely see the time frame pushed back a few weeks.
Honey bees, Apis mellifera, swarm for one of two reasons. Either the hive has become too crowded so they split into two groups (or more), with one group remaining in the existing hive. Or they abscond. In this case, all bees including the queen abandon the existing hive completely due to lack of food or water, parasite or disease infestation, frequent disturbance by humans or animals, weather changes, poor ventilation, or problems with the queen.
Western honey bees aren't nearly as likely to abscond as African honey bees, (a hybrid of South American and European bees known as Africanized honey bees), which tend to swarm more and be a bit more defensive as well.
Worker bees are able to detect when it's time to swarm due to overcrowding of the hive or the lack of pheromone production from the queen. In preparation for the swarm, the workers will deprive the queen of food in order to slim her down so she can fly. They will also agitate and run her around in order to prevent her from laying many eggs. If they are going to swarm, they will create new queen cells and allow the queen to lay eggs so a new queen can emerge and take over the hive.
Besides making honey, honey bees are essential for pollinating approximately 90 percent of our crops globally. Many of our favorite foods like almonds, most of our cherries, apples, blueberries, and other fruit and nut crops wouldn't exist without these hard-working bees.
According to Deb Conway with GirlzWurk in Saratoga, “Honey bees aren't usually a problem, as they normally set up their hives in tree cavities, shrubs, light poles, or abandoned buildings. However, they can become a nuisance when they take up residence in the walls of your home, garden shed or in your water meter.”
That's when it's time to call someone like Deb who can come and rescue the hive.
Last year was a particularly bad year for honey bees. Some beekeepers reported up to a 90 percent loss in their hives in 2018. Causes for this include varroa mite infestations, increased pathogens due to the warm weather, increased use of pesticides, and a decrease in diversity of food sources.
So, what can we do about a swarm? “If you leave the bees alone, they will leave you alone.,” said Dr. Elina L. Niño, a honey bee expert at UC Davis. “It only takes a few hours, or at most a day or two, for them to find and settle into their new home.”
Bees, as well as our other important and beneficial insects, are struggling. Our tendency to develop land and our extensive use of harmful chemicals are wiping out their natural habitat.
The public can truly make a difference by ceasing to use pesticides and by planting an array of beautiful, attractant plants such as ceanothus, lavender, echium, rosemary, penstemon and mint (mint is only recommended in containers because it is so invasive). For more bee-friendly plant ideas, visit UC Davis Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven.
Let's all commit to creating safe and nurturing spaces in our backyards, gardens (and yes, even on those balconies and decks) where our much-needed pollinators and beneficial insects can not only survive, but thrive!
For help in relocating a swarm or hive, or to contact a local beekeeper, visit the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild, which has information about Santa Clara as well as surrounding counties.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the April 16, 2019 issue of the San Jose Mercury News./h3>