Ed Colby: Give a homeless bee a chance
Catching a honeybee swarm is generally easy – if nobody sprays it with Raid first. You’d be amazed how often this happens.
If you’ll bear with me for a quick entomology lesson, I’ll tell you a story.
Honeybees swarm when the queen bee leaves the hive, taking with her about half of the hive’s bees and leaving behind a new queen. Bees like to swarm in the spring and early summer when honeybee numbers increase dramatically and the hive becomes crowded. This makes sense, doesn’t it?
Typically the swarm lands somewhere fairly close to the old hive and forms a cluster. From this beachhead, scout bees check out the neighborhood for a suitable new home. It could be a hollow tree or the roof of your house. But for a few hours – or days – the swarm remains clustered on the ground, on a fence, or hanging from the limb of a bush or tree.
This might sound scary to you, but for some reason, swarming bees hardly ever sting. At least they’ve never bothered me.
Here’s what I do. I go up to a swarm dangling from a bush. I shake the branch, and the bees fall into a bee box below. The bees are looking for a new home anyway, so when they drop into a box filled with honeycomb and a little honey, it pleases them, and they stay. I never get all the bees when I shake the branch, so I leave the hive box for a few hours to pick up stragglers.
Then I put the bee box in my truck and drive home. This is so easy. You could catch a swarm if you had me along.
A few days ago I received, in a roundabout way, a message from a caretaker at a well-known subdivision near Aspen.
A swarm had landed on a stone wall on the property. The owner wanted it exterminated. The caretaker said, “Wait, a beekeeper might take it.” The caretaker made it clear in his message that I should get there without delay. You know how impatient some owners can get.
I didn’t like the sound of this, but I had a rendezvous with some honeybees near Aspen the next day anyway. And you never really know how things will turn out.
I couldn’t reach the caretaker that evening. In the morning I left a message and then took a shower. When I got out of the shower at 7:45, I thought, “I have to get going. I’ll just call the homeowners. They ought to be up.”
The lady of the house was clearly not “up.” When I introduced myself, she mumbled, “Tony, (not his real name) it’s the beekeeper.”
Clearly I had aroused a slumbering Tony. He didn’t mince words. “Look,” he said, “I don’t know anything about those bees. You need to talk to my caretaker Nathan (not his real name). He’ll be in at nine.”
Fine. I’d call when I got upvalley. But five minutes later Nathan called me. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “The homeowner had the bees poisoned yesterday. The pest control people tried to talk him out of it. They said it’s better to move bees than kill them, but the homeowner wanted them gone.”
When Nathan lectured me about swarming, his facts were right on: “They were just looking for a new home. The queen was inside that swarm,” he said.
Indeed she was. I felt just a tad sorry for Nathan. Though his selfless efforts to save those bees came to naught, he maintained a certain dignity, I thought.
I felt bad for the bees, too. Those little darlings never had a chance. And they were just looking for a home.
[Ski patroller and beekeeper Ed Colby has a hard time concentrating on skiing when bees are buzzing. His column runs every other Tuesday in The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.]
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