When I collected my first swarm last year, I arrived at a well-manicured suburban home to find a cluster of bees the size of a Christmas Ham clumped on a branch about ten feet in the air. It is hard to describe what I felt as I walked over to stand under that swarm—peace, calm—it felt great to be with bees again.1
Anyhow, this short video has lots of great slow motion footage of honeybees. Enjoy.
Are you back? Okay. Now I would like to talk about swarms and native pollinators.
This is what a ‘typical’ honeybee swarm might look like.2 I want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that bees are not wasps. Wasps have the ability to sting you multiple times, and just may do that. But when a honeybee stings you, their guts are ripped out and left attached to the stinger stuck in your hand.
Now, if you think being eviscerated as a consequence of your actions might give you pause to think, it is the same for honeybees. You can still get stung, but out of ten thousand bees, only one or two guard bees are going to get shirty with you.3
Back to swarms—swarms are how honeybees spread. The bees raise new queens, then the old queen takes off with about half the colony. Before they leave, they stuff themselves with honey, then fly somewhere close while the scouts try to find a better spot. Generally they will hang out on branch for a couple of hours,4 then fly to their final home: a hollow tree, under a deck, inside a hot-tub cabinet, or whatever. They convert their belly full of honey into some fresh wax, and get the queen laying eggs so they will have new worker bees within a month.
So bees don’t like to sting, and swarming bees are stuffed full of honey. They just want a place to call their own, and are not looking to pick a fight.5 If you see a swarm, call your local beekeeping association and ask about swarm removal.
And now native pollinators…there are hundreds of species of bugs that pollinate—probably thousands (would anybody like to raise me to millions?). There are hundreds of species of bees that pollinate, let alone the wasps and flies. Now, as is often the way with we well-meaning humans, the invasive honeybees we so love can out-compete local, native pollinators, perhaps even to the point of extirpating them.6
Mason bees come out early in the year, and bumblebees can fly in high winds and rain—both can tolerate much colder temperatures. Local, native pollinators are very important to a healthy ecosystem and a healthy food system. So, the threat to food security of declining honeybees may be thought about especially as a threat to monoculture industrial farming. Honeybees are needed by the trainload to pollinate the thousands and thousands of acres of almonds in California. I don’t want thousands of acres of anything in one spot, so I am not in favour of monocultured industrial food. I want a high variety of locally grown foods,7 and for that local pollinators can be much better.
If you keep bees, you have a responsibility to support local pollinators, perhaps through pollinator-friendly landscaping. If you love food, the same. Here is a lovely USDA pamphlet on native pollinators. Here are plans for a bumblebee nest. And here, of course, for a mason bee board.8 When you are making your Mason bee home, drill holes of lots of sizes, for all the smaller and bigger bees in the world. Enjoy the peace and calm, if you can hear it over all the buzzing.
Postscript: I really enjoy keeping bees. They are wonderful—beautiful and mysterious and educational. They are impossible to anthropomorphize, and force me to consider the world through the values of an insect. I also have dreams of being honey self-sufficient, 9 or making a little money selling comb honey. So, I think keeping bees is great. But, most of the beekeeping world is of a chemical mindset, forgetting that bees have been fine for millions of years without our help. This was difficult for me to wrap my brain around, and continues to be challenging when I visit my local beekeeper’s group. I wish I had found some of the natural, organic, small cell beekeeping websites10 before I took a course, as I would have asked a lot more questions before signing up.