Bees at Sonoma Garden Park
It was a special time for everyone working at the Sonoma Garden Park on a recent Saturday—our harbinger of spring. Our feral bee colony, which has been living in a bird box swarmed right before our eyes! In the time span of about five minutes, the sky was filled with tens of thousands of bees. About fives minutes later, the bees chose to land in the plum tree in front of our bee yard, about three feet above ground. This location was fortunate for us, as Roger and Denise Fortain and I easily captured this swarm and hived it directly into one of our empty bee boxes. As we set up our bee box, the swarm cluster continued to grow. Normally, a large swarm would be about the size of a football. This was the largest landed swarm that I have ever seen. It's hard to imagine that they all lived inside this small bird box.
Swarming is a natural occurrence with honeybees. This is the means of expansion of their species. During the winter, the queen begins laying eggs and the colony population grows. By spring, the nest is full--as they outgrow their space, about 70-80% of the bees leave to find a new home. The queen bee also leaves with the swarm. Before swarming, the bees will raise a new replacement queen, which will hatch shortly after the colony swarms.
First scouts look for suitable temporary landing spot, as they found with our plum tree. Then they signal, and the swarm follows. Next the scouts look for a new home—a hollow tree, cavity in building, abandoned bird-box—anything that seems sheltered from wind and rain. Before bees swarm, they gorge themselves on honey in preparation for going without food for some time until they find a new home, build honeycomb, and build up new foodstores. When they swarm, they are full of honey and a bit demoralized, as they have no home. Therefore, they are usually relatively gentle, and will cooperate when we hive them, as these did.
My plans had been to assess the condition and size of our feral colony and at the next nice weekend afternoon, open the bird box to hive the bees and comb them into one of our bee boxes. Now my plans have changed. We will wait about three weeks for the new queen and the bees remaining in the bird box to expand their colony, and then we will open the bird box to hive the remaining bees.
We want to move the remaining bees into a bee box so we may inspect them to monitor their health and colony size. As the colony continues to grow, we can give them more space. If we were to leave the colony alone in the bird box, they would eventually swarm again.
If you see a swarm on your property, never spray them with water or spray chemicals on them. While they are clustered, scout bees are actively looking for a permanent home. When they find a new home, the scouts will signal to the others to follow them to their new home. A swarm cluster will usually find a new home within three days. Often, homeowners will call the fire or police department to ask them to remove the swarm cluster. These agencies will refer to a list of beekeepers that are willing to remove swarms. Some beekeepers charge a fee for their services, and some do not. You can access this list of beekeepers yourself by going online to www.sonomabees.org. This is the website of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association.
With bee populations in serious decline, it's important to contribute to a healthy bee environment. Certainly we could use some more bees here at Sonoma Garden Park. If you see a landed swarm on your property, you may call me to capture the swarm. My phone number is 321-6645, and I am also on the swarm list of the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association. I'll bring the bees to the Garden to expand our program here.
Our bees produced 140 jars of honey last year. We sold them all and we could have sold many more! Imagine our demand as word gets out that we have top quality local honey from hives that we manage without the use of chemicals in our hives.