Swarming Into Spring
By Dana Mentink
People aren’t the only ones who swarm outside when spring arrives. For honeybees, the warm weather means it’s time to hit the road in search of new homes. While a backyard swarm sounds frightening, it is an indicator of a healthy bee population and California needs all the bees it can get.
The humble bumble carries a heavy load of responsibility. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture statistics illustrate the point clearly. More than three million acres of American crops depend on insect pollination and 80 percent of that job is shouldered by bees. From peaches to pumpkins, soybeans to strawberries, a third of U.S. crops depend on bees to reach their savory potential. One million honeybees are required to pollinate the Central Valley’s profitable almond groves. While wind and other insects lend a helping hand, bees are the uber pollinators because the colonies can be moved from crop to crop as needed, and can visit plants in large numbers.
California’s acres of cropland should be a honeybee’s nirvana. So why are farmers forced to scramble to find enough bees to do the job? A frightening phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder or Vanishing Bee Syndrome has swept twenty two states, killing off huge numbers of honey bees. The exact cause of the massive die off is unknown but theories abound. Scientists surmise problems could stem from pesticides, genetically modified crops, mite infestations or factors yet undiscovered. Recently bees have become so scarce that California almond growers have turned to renting hives, paying beekeepers for the use of their bees.
So swarms are a good thing for the California’s environment and economy but what is a swarm exactly? It’s the bee’s way of forming a new colony. The old queen and half of the worker bees gobble up honey and take to the air in search of new real estate. The bees regroup on a branch or other handy shelter. The insects are full from their pre swarm feasting and generally docile. The scout bees fly off to find a permanent spot while foragers fly around collecting nectar to feed the cluster. If the scouts don’t find a new location, the group may begin to build combs, and this is when they can become defensive.
Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association is a local group that offers a swarm removal service to valley residents. Judy Casale is one of a network of volunteers who will come and take the buzzing brotherhood off your hands. If the swarm is on a branch the procedure is easy. “We clip off the branch and lower it into a box. They’re very docile when swarming because they are homeless. Sometimes I spray them with a little sugar water so they don’t fly.” Later she will put the bees in an empty hive. Casale has several hives on her Castro Valley property and she operates Dominique Honeybees, featuring cosmetic products made from wax and honey.
Casale is also the Vice President of Community Education for MTBA. She schedules events including school visits and an annual appearance at the Contra Costa County Fair which features an observation hive where kids can see the inner workings of a bee colony. The goal is to educate people about the importance of bees and clear up some of the confusion and fear surrounding the insect. “A lot of people confuse honeybees with yellow jackets which are a lot more aggressive. Honeybees are focused on flowers; they only eat honey and pollen. They’re not interested in your hot dogs,” said Casale.
Tom Lewis, First Vice President of the MTBA, keeps bees on his Martinez property. His first hive was a gift from his brother in law. He encourages the public to attend their meetings the second Thursday of each month at Heather Farms in Walnut Creek. “I like to see people become comfortable having bees in their gardens and flowerbeds. They’re different from their reputation. Bee problems are minor and they only happen if you threaten them or if you threaten their hives,” said Lewis. Bees also provide a way for Lewis to enjoy his own garden and the peace and quiet of being outdoors. “People don’t bother you when you’re working with your bees.”
Danville resident Phil Rice has similar sentiments. He became interested in bees as a hobby when his friend asked permission to house a couple of colonies on his property. “I assumed he meant to park them in my yard and continue to manage them since I knew nothing about bees." The bees turned out to be a permanent addition. “They are a constant source of entertainment and enjoyment, especially this time of year when the colonies are waking up and the activity is at its peak with workers coming and going and the smell of fresh honey just filling the yard.”
Beekeeping is a source of fascination for all ages. The youngest member of the MTBA is thirteen year old Danville resident Joshua Landgraf. A thirteen year old San Ramon Valley Christian Academy student, Landgraf trained for two years with 4-H Beekeepers. After learning all he could through 4-H, he was ready for the tutelage of the professionals and avid hobbyists at MTBA. “When I was a new beekeeper they welcomed me and acted as if I was one of them.” Joshua cares for a hive housed on his friend Phil Rice’s property. His favorite part of the process is extracting the honey. “Bees seal up honey in frames. I use a hot knife to remove the combs and put them in an extractor that spins all the honey out.” His beekeeping skills have their own sweet reward. The honey he harvested last year won first place in the 4-H Youth Fair. How do Joshua’s friends feel about his unusual hobby? “They’re afraid of bees and they wonder how I can handle it.”
Both amateur beekeepers and backyard enthusiasts agree that the humble honey bee deserves a save haven in the valley and beyond. Phil Rice sums it up perfectly. “Like anyone, bees will defend their homes, but treated with respect, they can co-exist beautifully with people.”