Everyone knows that honeybee populations around the world are in trouble, and therefore many of you are willing to do anything it takes to help them out.
I know it seems like a noble thing to share your home or property with the lucky honeybees who found you, since most people will just call an exterminator after all, but I want to give you a bigger perspective on this decision. It actually may not be the best choice for you, the bees, or your neighbors.
Early Spring, when the citrus begins to bloom and the rain is making the Desert Southwest come alive, the queen bee in a honeybee colony begins to increase her egg-laying. This is in response to the better weather conditions and the incredible amount of nectar available from the flowers. A queen bee can lay around 1500-1800 eggs a day at this time of year. That means the colony is going to grow very quickly. Drone production also increases. Drones are the male honeybees who will go out and mate with queens of other colonies.
The other phenomenon that happens during this time is what is called swarming. Simply put, each growing colony will create a new queen and half the colony will leave with the old queen to create a new hive. Depending on the virility of the colony and the abundance of nectar, each colony can do this a few times each spring. Add to this that the majority of colonies in Arizona are Africanized, which are known to swarm almost twice as many times as European honeybees, and you can see why I get lots of phone calls for bee removals at this time of year.
Early in the spring most of the bee relocation calls I get are for actual swarms. Those are the large clusters of bees that you see hanging in trees or on the sides of structures. They have recently left their mother colony and are resting as scout bees are sent forth looking for a suitable home. In this state the bees are quite docile and not in a defensive mood. They will often only remain there up to 48 hours. From there they will move into their new home and begin building comb for the queen to lay eggs in and as well as for food storage. It is vital that they do this quickly. I have often told people who call for their removal to just wait a couple days and they will probably move on. Unfortunately for many of those people, my advice cost them more in the long run because the home the scouts decided on just happened to be on their property, either in a tree, block wall, or inside their ceiling space. While I had hoped to save them money, I actually cost them, which I felt terrible about. Now I actually tell people up front that while it usually costs $75-$150 to remove a swarm that may move on, it is definitely better than having to spend hundreds more to cut open their home to get them out or paying an exterminator to put pesticides inside their living space.
After the initial swarm season starts, I start to get calls about bees going in and out of the eaves, shed floors, or any number of places bees decide to make a home. Let me tell you that the idea that bees prefer to make their home in natural environments like wooden structures has definitely not been my experience. I have relocated bees that have moved into tires, flower pots, plastic compost bins, valve boxes, pool heaters, rubbermaid containers, attics, walls, etc. The only thing these have in common is that they have an enclosed space with an opening that a bee can fit in. It’s impossible to make sure that you have every hole on your property filled. Honeybees, especially Africanized Honeybees, will often decide to stay put and actually build their new home right out in the open upon the tree they have swarmed to.
What’s the harm in letting them stay?
This year I started to see some trends, and here is where I wanted to address the decision to allow those bees to remain. As the weeks leading into spring carried on, I found myself getting bee relocation calls from the same neighborhoods. Sometimes they were swarms and sometimes they were established hives. Most of the time homeowners believe the bees have just moved in since they just noticed them, and unless they actually saw the swarm arrive, they are usually wrong by weeks or even months. Generally speaking, if I get a bee call in the early spring, it’s true that the bees just got there, but anytime after March, chances are they have been there a while and the removal process is a bit more challenging. Many times when I come take a look and tell the homeowner that I need to cut into their wall or floor to get the bees and comb out they decide that they want to “just live with the bees.” I can respect that because they don’t want to exterminate them, but the cost of removal may be more than they were expecting.
When this is the decision made, the result is that the entire neighborhood is going to see an increase in honeybees moving into their homes. You see, Africanized honeybees reproduce their colonies many many more times than European honeybees and they prefer to keep smaller colonies. They also don’t travel far from the original hive. That means that in one spring and summer, that one colony that was left in the shed floor, could send out 4-6 swarms to colonize the neighborhood, and that is why I get so many calls in one area.
There are many reasons for relocating honeybees, and being a responsible neighbor is just one of them. We definitely want to help honeybees thrive in our world. Beekeepers are on the forefront of this effort, but stewards of the land, which all homeowners are, play an important roll as well. You can still provide food and water for honeybees without them wanting to move into your structures, but if you do happen to find them living there, please call a beekeeper ASAP, your neighbors will thank you.