TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan — Honeybee swarming season is here and insect experts want area residents’ help to protect the pollinators.
Garth Ward said he frequently responds to calls to collect found swarms of bees outdoors, as well as remove established hives in buildings. The Traverse City, Michigan, based bee keeper and other experts said the best thing to do is call an experienced beekeeper to collect swarms and never try to drive them away or kill them with insecticide.
In fact, when honeybees swarm they don’t want anything but to find a safe place for their queen. He said they are even unlikely to sting while swarming.
“They are just in between houses,” Ward said.
Whenever a queen honeybee breaks away from a larger hive she will take between 30 and 70 percent of the bees with her, he said.
Ward said a swarm can look like a ball of bees, often teardrop-shaped, the size of a softball up to about the size of a bushel basket. Swarms are especially easy to collect when found while on the move, he said, awaiting scout bees to return with news of a suitable new home.
Entomologist Erwin “Duke” Elsner, retired educator with Michigan State University Extension, confirmed honeybees are not aggressive while swarming. He once found a swarm attached to a cherry tree and was able to get quite close and take pictures, he said.
“They are quite docile during these swarms,” Elsner said.
Specifically, they aren’t trying to defend a nest.
Elsner said the swarmed masses of bees can be found attached to a tree branch, a hand rail or anything, really. The pollinator insects are surrounding their queen to keep her protected while scouts look for new digs, he said.
“It starts with hearing a hum or seeing a lot of honeybees milling around in the air, no real direction to their flight,” Elsner said.
And while honeybees aren’t native species, they are critical pollinators — an insect that moves pollen among flowering plants and aids in fertilization.
“Honeybees are so valuable to us and nature. Even if not native, they are so valuable,” said Koffi Kpachavi, executive director of Grand Traverse Conservation District.
“Bees are directly responsible for every bite out of three that we take.”
Honeybees’ natural instinct to grow their population is why swarms happen in the spring. It’s a wonder of nature in action, Kpachavi said.
Additionally, honeybees are far easier for scientists to study compared to their native counterparts, many of which are nocturnal. And what affects honeybees affects native bees, so the species serves as a “canary in the coal mine” for researchers, Kpachavi said.
Conservation of both native bees and honeybees is critical for worldwide food production, he said, even pointing to parts of Asia where a lack of these insects has led to people hand-pollinating crops.
“Bees fulfill that role for us here and it behooves us to keep them healthy,” Kpachavi said.
Ward said he expects this year’s springtime swarm season to last a bit longer than normal because it began late. It may last throughout all of June, he said.
“If you come home and there’s a big ball of bees hanging in a tree like a teardrop, that’s a swarm,” Ward said.