Typically, April is the start of swarm season for honey bees, which can pose a danger to those with a lack of understanding that honey bees are not aggressive when in a swarm.
“This is the beginning of the swarm season and they will swarm until the beginning of June,” said Jim Mason, president of the Green Valley Beekeepers Association in Daviess County. “They can be anywhere there is a flowering tree or dandelions.”
Swarms form when bees reproduce and leave the hive to find new places to build hives because of spacing use. They travel in clusters and should cause no harm because they have no hive or offspring to aggressively defend. The swarms are basically meeting and resting sites where bees wait to migrate to their new homes.
According to Jeff Hagan, a local beekeeper hobbyist, swarms may stay on a swarming site for as little as 15 minutes or for as long as several days, but they will not stay on that site permanently.
“They can be on road signs, buildings, houses — basically anywhere,” Hagan said.
Swarms can contain several hundred to several thousand worker bees, a few drones and one queen. Once the scouting bees find a new location for the new colony, the swarm breaks up and flies to its new location.
Mason said, once the decision to swarm is made, the queen bee lays eggs in queen cups to prepare for another queen. The old queen leaves the hive, taking half of the workers with her, to search for a new home. The new queen will hatch in the old hive and the remaining workers consider her their new queen. Each swarm or hive has only one queen.
Honey bees play an important role in agriculture and horticulture and the number of bees is steadily declining, according to Hagan.
“Bees are huge pollinators and, if it wasn’t for bees, local producers would have to buy bees. They have to have them or they won’t have the product if we don’t have pollinators [bees],” Hagan said. “Bees also do so much for pasture — it’s crazy. Bees pollinate clover which gives cows more food and the cyclical process is enormous. There is a bigger environmental impact.”
U.S. beekeepers report that they have lost a third of their honey bee colonies each year in recent years. And Mason said the loss in this area is closer to 50 percent each year due to different factors. The two primary reasons are pests and disease.
“The primary predator is varroa mite and that attaches itself to a bee and sucks nutrients out of it until they can’t function,” Mason said. “The other is the small hive beetle that gets in the hive and honeycomb itself. It lays eggs in there and destroys the eggs that would become bees.”
Mason said that local beekeepers try to keep these problems under control by treating twice a year and then watching to make sure their bees do not starve over the winter.
“Keepers have to be careful not to take out too much honey in the fall and, if they do, they have to supplement with sugar water,” Mason said. “We have to do our best to preserve the population. Without it, we would lose about a third of our food sources.”
They are also dying at alarming rates because of their exposure to pesticides and herbicides, Mason said.
Hagan often attends local events at schools and businesses to talk about beekeeping and the benefits of bees to the community. He tells the audience that, although people love to pick dandelions and kill the weed, they are actually the first natural food source for bees in the spring.
“Clover, local trees, fruit trees are all important,” Hagan said. “The Honeycrisp apple exists only because of cross-pollination, but you only get it because of insects — bees,” Hagan said.
The Kentuckiana Beekeepers Association website has a bee, wasp and hornet identification guide to help determine if a swarm is, in fact, honey bees.
Swarms are as likely in the county as in the city. If you see a swarm that has landed, do not panic. And do not try to kill it with pesticides.
The Green Valley Beekeepers Association has a list of local beekeepers who will remove swarms for free. Some beekeepers may be willing to move wasp nests or other insect colonies, but some will only be willing to work with honey bees.
“The swarms are usually worth around $300 because there are thousands of bees,” said Hagan.
Some beekeepers even recommend taking a photo of the insects and comparing them with photos of honey bees to make sure.
More information is also available at the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association website.
“Beekeepers will take the bees and introduce them into new hives where they can survive by being fed and treated for any of many diseases and parasites that are threatening our bee population,” Mason said.