Backcountry Bees & Beekeeping


Bees and Swarm Season...

-by Kim Hamilton (part-time beekeeper)

Bees5a1A lot of questions and concerns have been raised about the bee swarms, which are numerous this year. There are a number of factors happening all at the same time which means we'll be seeing bee swarms throughout the summer.

Rob and I have kept bees for the last 30 years, and lost our hives in the fire. For the first year after the fire, we saw no bees at all in our Valleys. Nearly all wild and domestic colonies had been destroyed, including ours, and for the few survivors there simply was nothing to forage on. Deerhorn began to heal, and in 2009 and we started again with a package of bees from northern California (they actually come overnight mail via UPS!). Queen bees are ordered separately, and we prefer Carnolians for their gentle dispositions. But our bees still struggled, producing very little honey. But what honey we did harves was phenomenal. As the chaparral returned, the bees foraged on the native plants, and their honey was light in color and delicate in the flavors of the chaparral.

This year the rains arrived and produced the most beautiful spring we have ever seen in our 26 years. Our bees wintered well, and so did the few wild colonies that had survived. And when bees are happy, they reproduce, and for bees that means swarming off to create new colonies. Beekeepers keep this in check by expanding the size of their hives. But wild colonies have to swarm... usually to a hollow tree limb or other cavity. They may settle for a day or two, usually in a tree, while the scouts head out to locate a permanent location. Once the scouts report back the bees reach a consensus on where to head, and off they go. Swarms that land closer to the ground are often more aggressive, or (more likely) are yellow-jacket wasps. Not to be messed with!

Swarms of domestic honeybees are usually calm and gentle. They gorge themselves on honey before taking off, and are not likely to sting. However, Africanized bees that are here behave differently. They are far more agressive, especially when defending their hive, so people need to be aware, and approach with caution if a swarm has landed. The only remedy is a healthy domestic honeybee population that can compete with the Africanized bees and eventually dilute their aggressive natures.

Post- Harris Fire, it is critical to re-establish a healthy (domestic) bee population, not only for pollination, but to compete with Africanized bees who may otherwise move into "open" areas.

There are several places to call about swarms. Rob and I are often available it the swarm is within ladder distance. There are several postings on CragsList for live bee removal. A beekeeper will place the bees into a box and relocate them. Cost runs about $75 depending on accessibility. Here's a recent posting:, and there are others as well.



Beekeepers prevent swarming by checking and eliminating "queen cells." Worker bees create queen cells when they're feeling crowded, or the queen has been lost, damaged, or is just getting old and not laying as many eggs. Wild hives will usually swarm every year, often more than once.



There is a developing queen inside this cell. Beekeepers will often "re-queen" by removing the old queen and placing a queen cell like this into the hive and wait for it to hatch. Buying queens from a good breeder is more reliable to ensure good genetics (calm dispositions, good egg layer,offspring that are good honey producers.)



The honey we are seeing this year (2010) is exceptionally light and delicate. Honey is graded by both color and taste, and the honey from the Deerhorn and Dulzura chaparral has enjoyed a worldwide reputation since the last century. UPDATE: Our 2010 honey won second place at the San Diego County Fair!



Here is a beehive from another apiary. On warm days bees will often just come out and cool down a bit. They work hard, you know!

(Photo by P Dozier)



Sometimes the hardest part of hiving a swarm is getting the hivebox under it. Bees in walls or very high up in trees are often a problem to hive.



This small swarm settled on the lmb of an oak tree. This is about 3 pounds of bees... one pound equals about 3,500 individual bees.



Sarah Evosevich examines her newly hived swarm.


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How much protective clothing to wear often depends upon how big the swarm is, or how far up you need to climb the ladder to get to them. Both of these swarms were equally gentle, but the one on the left was twice as big, and twice as high. You don't want to be handling bees from 12 feet up a precariously balanced ladder without at least a face veil!



Once the bees are introduced to a new hive, scout bees will quickly begin fanning their wings and releasing a chemical that says to all, "This is a GREAT place... come on in!" The remaining bees will then begin to flow into the hive. When they arenearly all inside, we add a top and move them to their permanent location.



Here we are adding a captured swarm to a weaker hive. There will be two queens for a while (the old one, and the new one in the swarm). They will seek each other out and only one will survive to carry on the work of laying eggs. A queen can live several years. A worker bee lives only about 30 days during honey season, and produces just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.

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