You’d think being maybe 5 feet away from a buzzing, vibrating clump of bees would be a scary experience.
But all I could think was that this was one of the most fascinating things I’d ever seen.
There I was, picking through the brush in a Cuyahoga Falls backyard last week, trying to get a better look at the thousands of honeybees that had massed along the branches of a shrub. There was no protective clothing between those bees and me, but they were more interested in whatever it is swarming bees do than they were in me.
I was there at the invitation of Emily Yeary of Mueller Honey Bee Removal in Akron, who had called me that morning to alert me to the swarm she’d been summoned to capture. This is honeybee swarm season, and Yeary had enlisted my help to educate people about swarms and encourage them to call a beekeeper or removal service if they find one.
Swarms are created when a queen bee leaves a hive with a group of worker bees to create a new colony. The bees typically cluster around the queen in a temporary spot for a day or two, clinging to one another while scout bees go off in search of a good place to create a new nest. When they find it, the colony moves on to that permanent home.
Sometimes bees swarm in bushes and trees, but they’ll cluster just about anywhere — along wire fences, on cars, in tires, inside walls. “Wherever the queen lands, they surround her,” Yeary said.
Honeybees are usually docile when they’re swarming, but their presence can frighten people. And too often, Yeary said, the results are unfortunate.
“When people see a big ball of bees, they think they’re hornets, and they start spraying them and killing them,” she said.
That’s a travesty to beekeepers like Yeary, who work to protect vulnerable honeybees. The bees play an important role in pollinating food crops and other plants, but they’re dying in alarming numbers because of what scientists believe is a combination of factors including diseases, parasites, nutrition problems and pesticides.
Beekeepers like to take advantage of the short window of time when the bees are swarming to capture them, because the honeybees stand a better chance of survival in a hive managed by a beekeeper than in the wild, said Keith Burtt, the bee inspector for Summit County.
Yeary was out to do just that. With her jeans tucked into boots, her hands gloved and her head and torso protected by a bee suit, she plunged fearlessly into the shrub, snipping branches away until she could get access to the swarm. She sprayed the bees periodically with sugar water, a tactic she explained diverts the bees’ attention by prompting them to clean themselves and each other.
Once she’d cleared enough space, she set a wood hive box on the ground beneath the shrub and shook the branches until most of the bees dropped onto the box.
The bees’ hum intensified to an angry buzz, as though they were aggravated by this disruption. Many flew around in what seemed like a confused frenzy, a number of them streaking by me but still never bothering me.
Yeary sprayed the bees with more sugar water, and within a short time most had climbed inside the box to cling to vertical structures called frames.
Some were reluctant to leave the shrub, and Yeary could see why. The bees had already started producing the wax honeycomb they use to house their young and store pollen and honey. It was evidence that the colony had decided to make this shrub its permanent home.
She needed to cut out all the comb and inspect it to make sure the queen wasn’t clinging to it. If she were, the worker bees wouldn’t stay in the hive box, but would instead insist on returning to her, she explained.
Eventually the bees settled down, and Yeary was able to put a lid on the hive and cart it off. This hive was destined for a beekeeping friend, but usually Yeary and her partner, Ryan Mueller, will nurture a new colony awhile to make sure it’s healthy and not aggressive, and then sell it to a beekeeper.
What should you do if a swarm appears on your property?
A good place to start is the Ohio State Beekeepers Association, www.ohiostatebeekeepers.org. There’s you’ll find phone numbers for local associations and links to their websites, which often contain lists of beekeepers that can capture swarms.
Yeary said her company will drive within an hour of Akron to remove a swarm and will cut into walls if necessary. She can be reached at 330-357-9185.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckABJ and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.