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As with many things in life, catching a swarm of honey bees is all about opportunity and availability. In other words, luck. Bees swarm in the spring, as the nectar flow and lengthening days result in near-exponential population growth within a colony, and the bees run out of space in their hive. Capturing and rehiving a swarm is one of the best ways for a beekeeper to increase the number of hives in her apiary, for a few reasons:

  1. It's cheap! Darn near free, except for the minor cost of whatever modified box or bucket used to contain the swarm. For example, for a few years we used an ordinary cardboard file box (the type you'd buy for about $2 at any office supply store) with mesh-covered windows as our official swarm catching box. Last year my husband bought a 5-gallon bucket with lid from a hardware store, cut some windows in it and taped on some mesh. It works better than the box, which was falling apart anyways and needed to be replaced. Still super cheap, too.
  2. Swarms come from locally adapted colonies. True, the mother colony that threw the swarm may have originated as a package colony bought from a commercial beekeeper from anywhere in the country, but at the very least it survived the winter here, which hints at potential long-term suitability for this particular location.
  3. Every swarm that is captured by a beekeeper and rehomed in a managed apiary is a swarm that will not turn a neighbor's home/garage/fence/etc. into a hive. In terms of responsible beekeeping, this is a Really Good Thing™. It is much simpler to relocate a swarm than to remove an established colony from, say, inside the wall of a house. Most homeowners don't like being told that in order to get rid of the colony of bees that has taken up residence between the studs in a wall, the wall will have to be cut open to make sure that all the bees, wax combs, and honey are removed.
Ye olde swarm-catching bucket

Until this past weekend it had been an unfortunate spring for us as beekeepers. For the first time in our eight years donning the veil we had lost almost all of our hives over the winter; all of the hives at our house had died, and we were down to 1.5 hives at our second apiary. We had also missed out on a couple of swarm calls, which either came in when we couldn't deal with them or another beekeeper got to the swarm first. One swarm flew off before we arrived to pick them up, ironically as we were on our way down the highway so I could give a talk on beekeeping to the Watsonville Wetlands Watch.

Much of that luck changed this past Saturday, when we got a call about two swarms in a backyard apple tree. Given that it was a sunny morning, we decided to capture the swarms before the scout bees found a new home site and persuaded their sisters to move into it. They were both good-sized swarms, one a bit larger than a basketball and the other about the size of a football.

Two swarms in an apple tree
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Those streaky blurs in the sky aren't UFOs or dust streaks on the camera lens; they're bees in flight.

The swarms were both about 8 feet off the ground, which puts them nicely within reach of an ordinary ladder. We had brought a ladder with us and the homeowner had one as well, so we could catch both of the swarms at the same time. In the spirit of full disclosure: I can't take any credit for catching these swarms, as I was taking pictures instead of being useful.

Swarm of honey bees in an apple tree
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Swarm catching is pretty simple when the bees are clustered in a tree like this: You place a box (or bucket or whatever) under the swarm and either shake the bees into the box or cut the branch they're clustered on and lower that into the box. Shaking tends to send a lot of bees into the air, but as long as the queen ends up in the box the rest of the bees will eventually find their way to her. When they're all in the box you close it up and take it away.

The "small" swarm captured into a cardboard box
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The large swarm went into the bucket:

The "large" swarm going into the bucket
15 April 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We brought the swarms to the apiary. The next step was to pour the bees from the box and bucket into their intended hives. And this is where our luck changed. One of the swarms, instead of settling into our Blue hive boxes, took off into the air. This happens sometimes, when for whatever reason the queen flies and all of the workers go with her. If the beekeeper is lucky they land some place accessible and can be recaptured. This swarm gathered very briefly in the poison oak at the top of a dead coffeeberry bush, then flew away across the street. I was unable to see where they were headed.

The good news was that the larger swarm was much more cooperative and remained in the Purple hive where they were dumped. Joining them in this apiary is the Rose hive, which was a split from one of our downtown hives. The weather on Sunday and Monday was cold and rainy, and today was the first day the bees had a chance to get out and fly. Today (Tuesday) we saw them orienting to their new home. We shouldn't have any rain for the next several days, which will give them lots of time to forage. Swarms are usually primed and ready to go into building mode as soon as they reach their new home, so the queen in our Purple hive can start laying immediately (assuming, of course, that she was the old queen from the mother hive that threw the swarm; if she's a virgin she'll have to go on her mating flights first). It'll be three weeks before we see an increase in the number of bees; in the meantime the population will decline as bees die off due to natural attrition. Thus around mid-May we should start seeing some big orientation events. Fingers crossed!

I sort of assume that people appreciate the importance of honey bees. And then, every so often I am forcibly reminded that, even in the fairly ecologically savvy city where I live, there are those who would rather destroy honey bees than live with them. Fortunately, sometimes I am also reminded of the resilience of honey bees and the remarkable ways that they have adapted to living with humans.

Case in point. About a year and a half ago one of my students told me about a colony of bees living in a eucalyptus tree in his neighborhood, on a corner two blocks from the ocean. I went to check it out, and indeed there were bees coming and going from a hole about 3 meters above the ground. They seemed to be perfectly happy in the tree, and I was happy to know that they were there. I looked in on them every once in a while and noticed that in the early fall the entrance to the colony had been sealed up with some gunk that looked like white foam.

Given the stresses on honey bees these days--pesticides, varroa mites and other parasites, as well as some of the practices of commercial beekeeping--one of the most valuable things a hobbyist beekeeper can come across is a locally adapted feral colony. Local adaptation means exactly what it sounds like: bees that have evolved to survive and thrive in the conditions of a particular area. They will have survived multiple winters and whatever parasite load comes along with the location. While there would be a change in the royal regime every 2-3 years on average, the lineage of queens would be producing viable, vigorous workers. Beekeepers want to know that alleles from these locally adapted feral colonies are in the gene pool in which our queens are mating. Most of us would love to catch a swarm thrown by one of these locally adapted colonies (we may have done that earlier this season, in fact).

Yesterday I got a third-hand phone call about a "swarm of bees in a tree in such-and-such a neighborhood" and did I want to capture them? Mid-July is late for swarms, and after the caller mentioned what street they were on I realized we were talking about the feral colony I'd kept an eye on for the past year. I went down and looked at the tree, and noticed that the bees were in the same tree but had moved within the tree.

Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The bees are coming in and out of that orange blotch on the trunk. More about that later. This is a new opening as of this year.

Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There was zero activity around the 2015 entrance. The two entrances are less than a meter apart on the outside of the tree, but there is no way to know whether or not the internal cavities are connected. The absence of bees near the door they were using last year suggests that the spaces are not connected. I wish I had a fiber-optic camera, because I'd love to see what's going on inside that tree.

What's going on outside the tree is a lot of coming and going.

While the neighbors and I were watching all the coming and going, I got a little of the backstory of this colony. The neighbors next to the property where the feral colony lives told me that there have been bees in that grove of eucalyptus trees for the 15+ years they've lived in their house. Last year, when the bees were in the lower entrance to the colony, the owner of the house on the corner called in an exterminator to poison them. The bees died but the cavity in the tree still contained wax and honey, which would be very attractive to a swarm looking for a permanent address. It appears that the bees currently residing in the tree either found or made themselves a new door, which at some point in recent months had been sealed up with foam (the orange stuff). They chewed through the foam and are carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Why would somebody pay to have an exterminator poison a colony of honey bees that is posing no threat? The reason must be fear and ignorance. This colony is high enough that the bees' flightline is well above head height, and I imagine most people walking right next to the tree don't even realize that the bees are there. However, fear is a powerful motivator, with ignorance coming in as a close second. The property owners decided that the bees were either a nuisance or a danger, and had them dealt with accordingly. Their neighbors, on the other hand, are happy to know that the bees are there to pollinate their gardens. I've asked them to keep in touch and let me know if they see anything interesting happening at the tree, and they've agreed to let us put a bait hive out there next spring to see if we can catch a swarm from this locally adapted colony.

One potential problem is that at some point in the past year or so the interior of the tree has been poisoned at least once. I don't know what poison was used (it might not be difficult to find out but at this point I don't want to bother--concussion, remember?) or its half-life in honey and beeswax. It could be that the bees living in the tree now are doomed because they've been exposed to the pesticide, or that any swarms they throw contain contaminated bees. I will keep watching this colony, though, crossing my fingers that they can continue to thrive despite the unfortunate activities of their closest human neighbors.

Today's online version of the San Francisco Chronicle published another follow-up article about last week's rampage of bees in Concord, CA. The gist is that seven bees sent to the state Department of Food and Agriculture for testing, and the results showed that they did not possess Africanized alleles. This finding has led some to conclude that the bees that did the attacking were ordinary European honey bees. This, in turn, is a dangerous conclusion because the logical continuation of the thought process is that any hive of ordinary European honey bees kept in managed hives could suddenly and without warning become super aggressive. Let me address the study results as reported in the Chronicle, and then we can talk about the repercussions to beekeepers in California.

Thought #1:  First of all, only seven bees were examined for Africanization. Seven out of several tens of thousands of bees in the colony. So yeah, sampling error is a problem.

Thought #2:  Worker honey bees, all of which are female, are diploid. They inherit nuclear chromosomes from both parents. This is the same as happens for other diploid animals such as humans and most likely every other animal you would think of. The workers' brothers, the drones, are haploid; they develop from unfertilized eggs and thus carry nuclear DNA only from their mother, the queen.

Thought #3:  The test used by the state looked for the presence of Africanized alleles in the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of the seven bees that were examined. In sexually reproducing animals, the female gamete (egg) is much larger than the male gamete (sperm). The sperm provides DNA to the zygote that results from fertilization, but little else. All of the other cellular components, including mitochondria, come from the egg. Mitochondria are nifty little bean-shaped organelles, evolutionarily derived from some sort of aerobic bacterium-type critter, that are the "powerhouses" of cells. They are the site of cellular respiration, where glucose molecules are broken down and the energy within the chemical bonds is released to fuel the cell's activities. Mitochondria, as descendants of formerly free-living bacteria, possess their own DNA and are self-replicating units within eukaryotic cells. Because a diploid organism inherits mitochondria only from its mother, mtDNA can be used to trace maternal lineages through time.

Thought #3.5:  A hive of European honey bees contains a European queen and her progeny. Her daughters, the workers, obtained half of their DNA from her and half from their fathers. A virgin queen mates with 12-15 drones on her mating flight before returning to her hive to begin laying. If some of the drones she mates with have Africanized alleles, then some proportion of her daughters will as well.

Thought #4:  The results of the test used by the state cannot be correctly interpreted as indicating that there were no Africanized bees in the aggressive hive in Concord. Period. If the state wants to test for Africanized alleles, looking only in the mtDNA isn't going to do the trick. They can examine every single damn bee in the hive, and all they will find is the same mtDNA that the European queen has. They are looking in the wrong damn place--they need to examine the nuclear DNA for Africanized alleles. Now, there could always be something unusual about the mitochondrial genome of honey bees that I'm not aware of, which would mess up my entire argument. However, I am not the only person who thinks that relying on mtDNA to determine Africanization tells the whole story. Eric Mussen, apiculturist emeritus at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, said more or less the same thing a week ago, right after the attack happened.

Repercussions for beekeepers: Well, any beekeeper knows that public hysteria about bees is a real thing. Many people are frightened of honey bees and don't want them around. Responsible beekeepers take measures to ensure that their bees are not a nuisance or danger to the public. We really want to do the right thing for our neighbors as well as for our bees. Shoddy science reported as fact doesn't help our cause.

Five days ago the residents of a suburban neighborhood in Concord, CA, got to experience first-hand what happens when a colony of Africanized honey bees takes over a hive of European bees. According to the most recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the original colony had been managed by a beekeeper for 15 years without any problems. Beekeepers conclude that the Africanized bees invaded the colony, killed the European queen, and took up residence. They became agitated when the beekeeper tried to move the hive last Friday. Several people were stung multiple times and two small dogs were killed.

The reason I bring this up is to calm fears. As I wrote last fall, we already know that Africanized honey bees have been in the greater San Francisco Bay Area since 2014. I'm willing to bet that there are Africanized alleles in the honey bee gene pool around Santa Cruz, too. Let me explain why I'm not overly concerned about Africanized honey bees.

As a beekeeper myself I am growing less and less tolerant of bees that are in the least bit jumpy or overly defensive; they make working a hive more stressful than it needs to be, which means the hive is open for a longer period of time, which means the bees get more anxious, which means the beekeepers get more anxious, and so on and so forth. Life as a beekeeper, especially in a suburban area, is much more pleasant when the bees themselves are gentle and sweet. In our experience, the Italian and Russian strains of the European honey bees have a docile temperament and are easy to work with.

There's no doubt that the Africanized alleles are here, and they're here to stay. I touched upon this the other day when I wrote about the bees in our pantry. I also have no doubt about the impact that hobbyist beekeepers will have to control the spread of those alleles for extreme defensive behavior. You see, by re-queening aggressive colonies whose queen may have mated with Africanized drones, a beekeeper removes those alleles from the hive, effectively diluting them in the larger gene pool. Hobbyist beekeepers would be selecting against defensiveness and for docility. Now, I am not a honey bee population geneticist, nor am I an expert on the different strains of European honey bees. However, I do know that if we consistently cull queens whose daughters are too jumpy or quick to defend their colony, then eventually we should end up with less defensive behavior as the Africanized alleles become rarer in the population.

I should also say that those Africanized alleles are not going away. We, beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, have to accept that Africanized bees have been established in California for decades now and are expanding their range northward. A warming climate may enable them to overwinter successfully in areas that were formerly too cold for them. So we have them, and have probably had them for a while now. Most people encounter only foraging bees; these, whether or European or African descent, tend to be focused on their work and can't be bothered to notice the big lumbering mammal watching them (unless said mammal does something to provoke the bees, in which case all bets are off). It is only when they detect a threat to their colony that the bees become aggressive.

So, what should you do? Well, if you see a feral colony of bees, don't mess with it. This is the same advice that I'd give someone who asks how not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Pay attention to your surroundings, even if you're just walking the dog around the block. Who knows, a swarm of bees may have taken residence in a tree that you've walked past a thousand times before. If you notice bees flying into and out of a hole in a tree, watch them from a safe distance (binoculars are great tools for spying on bees). If you are concerned that a colony may be in a bad location because of proximity to people or livestock, contact a beekeeper who can remove it safely. Above all, keep in mind that in your daily life you do many risky things. If you don't believe me, check out these data from the National Safety Council in 2002 for chance of death due to:

  • car accident as an occupant of a car: 1 in 17,000 (yikes!)
  • falling from stairs or steps: 1 in 180,000
  • suffocation in bed: 1 in 565,000
  • drowning in a swimming pool: 1 in 450,000
  • contact with hornets, wasps, and bees: 1 in 5,000,000

So don't worry, but do be aware. And don't let the threat of Africanized honey bees keep you from enjoying the outdoors! And don't forget to look both ways before you cross the street, either.

I suspect that, for most people, opening the pantry and hearing the buzz of bees would be an alarming thing. For us, though, it's just a reminder to see if the queen wants any food.

Why, you may well ask, do we have bees in the pantry? Because this year we have a few hives that are more aggressive than we'd like. This queen came from our Green hive, which we thought early in the spring had gone queenless. They were pissy at the time, which is the norm for hives that are not queen-right. We weren't certain that the Green workers would be able to build themselves a new queen but when, after waiting three anxious weeks, we saw new brood in the hive we sighed in relief.

This new queen, however, happens to produce rather bitchy daughters. This has to do with her own genetics as well as those of the drones she mated with. The workers in this hive aren't really mean, but are more easily riled up and less forgiving than we like to deal with. Fortunately there's an easy solution to this problem: Re-queen the hive. More on that below.

This is a queen cage:

Bees in queen cage. 17 May 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Bees in queen cage.
17 May 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Queen cages come in a variety of forms but they are essentially all the same: A cylinder that has an openable hatch on one end and some mesh on the sides. The idea is that you put a queen inside the cage with some accompanying attendants. The mesh allows for air circulation, and you can offer food and honey to the attendants who will in turn feed it to the queen. There's a smear of honey on the mesh in the photo above; I fed and watered the bees when I got home this afternoon.

Now, about re-queening a hive. The first step is to locate and remove the existing queen. If the hive is "boiling over with bees," as one of our beekeeping mentors likes to say, then it can be a tough job. The queen is captured and placed into the cage with 4-5 attendants who will care for her for several days. Then you can place the new queen, hopefully of a more pleasant disposition, in her cage in the hive. Wait at least three days for the bees to get used to her scent--they'll kill her as an intruder if you don't--then open up the cage and let her go into the bowels of the hive. At this point the worst thing that can happen is that she decides to fly. This hasn't happened to us (yet) but it has to one of our mentors, who admits that he should have known better than to show off by opening the queen cage outside the front door of the hive, only to watch her take off into the air and never come back.

The former queen of our Green hive (the one who has temporary residence in our pantry) will go to a friend of ours who likes bitchy bees. Tomorrow we'll introduce Green's new queen, a Taber Italian, to the workers in the hive. After a few days to let the new queen's pheromones circulate throughout the colony, we'll release the queen into the and she'll start laying. Within a month or so, the temperament of the entire hive should have changed from moderately pissy to sweet and gentle.

Re-queening a hive can solve problems of overly defensive bees. Some beekeepers don't tolerate any hint of unpleasantness in their bees and will remove any queen whose daughters aren't easy to work with. I'm leaning in that direction, too. Having been chased by an overly competent guard bee and gotten a bad sting the second summer we had bees, I am more nervous around some of our colonies than I should be. In addition to making our hives easier to deal with, selecting for gentleness would also spread this desirable trait throughout feral colonies in the area. Sweet bees FTW!

In the meantime, until we can get our old queen to our friend, Ian, she and her attendant daughters are living in the pantry. The pantry is a dark place (remember, there's no light inside a bee colony, so they are most comfortable in darkness) where the temperature remains fairly consistent. Plus, the nosy cats can't get to the bees if I close them in the pantry. I have to admit that it's a little startling to open the pantry door and be greeted by a loud buzz. But better us than just about anyone else, right?

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