Eye on Nature: Bee Aware


By Ellen Girardeau Kempler


Honey bee pollinating a flower. Photo by Louise Docker, Wikimedia Commons.
Honey bee pollinating a flower. Photo by Louise Docker, Wikimedia Commons.

About once every summer, someone in our neighborhood spots a honey bee swarm. I’ve seen them myself: a buzzing cloud of restless energy moving from one yard to another.  Because bees make many people anxious even under normal circumstances (about two of every 1,000 people are seriously allergic), a displaced group of 1,500 to 3,000 causes phones to ring up and down the street as neighbors alert each other to potential danger.

Like rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders, bee swarms are the stuff of nightmares and horror movies. Yet swarming is bees’ natural response to overcrowding. In warm weather, when bees rapidly reproduce, old hives can become too small to support the increased population. A swarm of workers, drones and one queen will typically leave an old colony in late spring or summer in search of a tree cavity or other suitable nesting site.

Although they look and sound threatening, swarming bees are less likely to be aggressive because they have no nest, young or food supply to protect.  The only exception to this rule applies to Africanized bees, which tend to be more defensive and swarm more frequently than their European cousins. The term “killer bee,” however, is misleading, since both European and Africanized bees sting only once and deliver the same amount of venom.  The two species look virtually identical. The main difference is in their behavior.

As a precaution, anyone who spots a bee swarm should call a professional, pesticide-free removal service that can trap and relocate it to a bee box or other suitable nesting place.  The Orange County-based company, Backyard Bees, for example, offers this service as well as opportunities for home gardeners to learn about beekeeping through classes or volunteering. They will also assess backyards to evaluate their suitability for hives. After approval and training (and the required city permit), homeowners who do not want to become beekeepers themselves can opt to share a hive with Backyard Bees. In return for the space, the homeowner becomes an armchair beekeeper, getting a share of honey without ever having to put on a beekeeping suit.

The pesticide-free approach to bee removal is especially important because of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Since 2006, beekeepers around the world have documented increasing incidences of this syndrome, when worker bees abandon a hive and the colony dies. Because reduced bee populations could severely limit the global food supply, the European Union has banned the use of some pesticides. In a 2012 report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged that pesticides could be among the stressors causing undernourished and malnourished bees to die.

Many experts say homeowners can help by planting large swaths of flowering plants (herbs, vegetables and native perennials) and avoiding the use of pesticides. Your pesticide-free garden is an important source of nourishment for bees working to pollinate food crops around the world.

The former communications director of Laguna Art Museum and Laguna Canyon Foundation, Ellen Girardeau Kempler is founder and chief navigator of Laguna-based Gold Boat Journeys. She specializes in travel planning, writing, and social media training. Contact her at [email protected].

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