|Look closely. Do you see anything?|
Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are among this country’s earliest immigrants, having arrived on our shores as cargo brought from Europe with the first colonists. Called the “white man’s flies” by the Native Americans, these resourceful creatures soon escaped from domestication; they were found throughout the woods in what is now Massachusetts by 1639.
The Europeans did not know what they would find in the “New World,” but they knew pollinators were critical to their survival, so they brought their honey bees with them. According to the Xerces Society, “The ecological service they [pollinators] provide is necessary for the reproduction of over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species. The United States alone grows more than 100 crops that either need or benefit from pollinators.”
There are 4,000 native bee species in the United States. They were here pollinating flowers long before the honey bee arrived, and they continue to do most of the pollination of our native plants, including crops like blueberries and cranberries.
The natives, however, are not much use when it comes to pollinating fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, that have been brought here from other places. We have come to depend on honey bees for this work. This example provided by the USDA illustrates how reliant we have become: “Almonds, for example, are almost completely dependent on honey bees for pollination. In California, the almond industry makes use of almost three-quarter of all managed honey bee colonies in the United States, brought from all over the country during one short window of time in January and February each year.” The USDA estimates that pollination by managed honey bees adds at least $15 billion to the value of US agriculture annually.
In the last decade the health of the honey bee population has been a cause for concern, in both the US and other countries. Scientists believe the factors posing the greatest impact to bee health include the parasitic Varoa mite (the major factor in Colony Collapse Disorder), a lack of genetic diversity in the honey bee population, and poor nutrition in honey bee colonies.
Severe weather and loss of habitat are also contributing factors.
Yes, good news about bees has been in short supply.
This is why I want to share a true story about a swarm of bees in California, a guild of beekeepers, and one beekeeper in particular who came to the rescue.
But first, a few words about bee swarms courtesy of the University of California, Davis. Swarming is how colonies reproduce. The old queen departs from an established hive in search of a new home with about half the worker bees, most commonly in the spring. A small number of specialized workers known as scouts set out ahead of the rest in search of an ideal location; the swarm leaves the hive and gathers in a cluster to await news from the scouts. The cluster is generally quite docile, although it can look a bit frightening to someone unfamiliar with them. The scouts usually find a final location within a few days. They return to the cluster and dance on it to communicate the location of the site they have chosen.
Most of the swarm clusters are simply resting on their way to a new site. But they can be a cause for concern if they are on or near your house. In that case you might want to call an expert for assistance — a beekeeper!
Now, back to the story.
One May evening my son and daughter-in-law, who live in Santa Clara County, California, returned from work to discover this swarm cluster in the small lemon tree right next to their driveway. Sarah promptly googled for advice on what to do. This led her to the UC Davis site I referenced earlier. This led her to enter “beekeepers, Santa Clara County,” which led her to the Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild site, which is where she found Jon Garliepp, a beekeeper in nearby Los Gatos.
Jon is an entrepreneur with a number of businesses. He harvests and sells honey. He has chickens. Since the death in 2015 of the one beekeeper in the area who sold supplies, Jon sells bees and equipment for beekeepers at Chick n Bees Equipment Feed and Supplies (where you can also buy everything you need for your chickens). A member of the Santa Clara County Beekeepers Guild, Jon also rescues swarms and finds them homes at no charge. He was more than happy to share his story.
Jon said that the drought last year was particularly hard on his hives. He had ten hives but lost five of them over the winter. Jon does not treat his hives. He does not move them (rent them out to agricultural operations).
But the spring rains have been good for the bees. Swarms occur when colonies are thriving. This year to date he has removed 10 swarms.
How did he get started? Jon told me that when he bought a house, he discovered bees living in both his house and his garage. He had the ones in the house removed and left the ones in the garage alone. When they swarmed he got interested in bees and beekeeping.
What does Jon do when he gets a call about a swarm? He comes to the swarm site late in the day. He tries to bring an actual hive in which to catch the swarm, making one less move for the bees and cutting down on their stress. But when Jon got the call about Sarah's swarm cluster he was at the store and he just grabbed a cardboard box to use. He told me he always tries to get one that is at least 12x12x12. When Jon uses a box he has to be extra careful, as it does not have a vent.
He generally captures swarms in the late afternoon, placing the swarm cluster gently inside the box or new hive. He waits until nightfall to finish his work. Returning scouts can smell the queen and will make their way inside the container to join the others. Once the last scout has found his way in, Jon will close the hive up, move it to a cool spot on his property for the night, and, if the swarm is in a box, he will move it to a wooden hive the next morning. Jon told me, “If I was ideally set up, I would use a box (either cardboard or wood) that had a vent on it to allow for ventilation. I have found that even if I put a toothpick hole in a cardboard box, they will start chewing their way out — not good when I have it in my dining room overnight!”
|Dan and Sarah's swarm are in the "Nuc" on the right.|
You can't see them, but they are in there.
|The seven pound swarm!|
Jon has two sizes of hives. This little one, a “Nuc” with just five frames, was ideal for Dan and Sarah’s swarm, which was on the small side, weighing about 1 lb. [They are living in the Nuc now.] The larger one, with ten frames, is suitable for bigger swarms. The largest swarm Jon has ever moved is 7 lbs., shown in the photo at the right. [That is a lot of bees.] To give you a better idea about the size of a swarm, a beekeeper who purchases a commercial package of bees is buying about 3 lbs of bees.
Jon will monitor the hive’s health for a bit before installing it in a new location. If his property is not large enough to handle another hive, he will give it away to another beekeeper.
I asked Jon whether the bees were happy in their new homes. Jon wrote, “When I put them in their final hive, they stay because it is ideal for them. I have not had a swarm leave a hive yet. Sometimes I will use frames that have some comb from another empty hive so that they will have a head start. They clean the old comb and have a quicker start, kind of like moving into a furnished home!”
A happy ending [make that 10 so far this year]!
Jon Garliepp took all the photos in this article and was kind enough to share them, AND to spend lots of time answering my many questions about bees and bee swarms. Thanks, Jon!
Not all of us are beekeepers, but there are things each of us can do to help all our bees to be(e) healthy! Look for future posts on this subject.
Without bees our world would be a dreary place indeed.
[Thanks to Sarah, too, for thinking so clearly and for telling me about your adventure!]