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Bees on the move form astonishing – and huge – swarms

An employee of Marshalls on Delaware Avenue left work a few weeks ago to find an almost surreal sight: A massive cluster of honeybees covered almost half of his parked car.

The seething, buzzing blob was a “swarm” – an intimidating natural phenomenon that happens at this time of year when honeybee hives reach critical mass and the queen takes off, followed by half the worker bees in the hive.

“The hive gets full, the bees swarm. That’s how they propagate,” said beekeeper Barney Klimeck of Freedom in Cattaraugus County.

The swarm buzzes loudly as thousands pile out of the hive and rise into the air, following the queen. It flies a short distance and lights someplace to rest – a tree branch, a birdbath, or the rear passenger-side door of a car parked in the Marshalls lot.

While the swarm rests, scout bees look for a permanent spot to live, such as a hollow tree, a house wall or even an empty beehive.

But it’s that first stop that draws all the attention. It’s out in the open, in a place where nobody expects to see thousands of bees, buzzing softly in a solid, seething blob.

“I think it’s been a big year, and I think it has something to do with the last one being a harsher winter,” said Jennifer Baglio of the Western New York Honey Producers Association. “I think Mother Nature is propagating her little sweethearts and sending them out to build up the ones they lost.”

Many people’s first reaction to a bee swarm is to grab a can of insecticide. But with growing awareness of the importance of honeybees for pollination, and offers from beekeepers to respond quickly to collect a swarm, many of the swarms are being saved.

A security guard at Marshalls contacted the local honey producers association, which sent out a message to its members.

Not one but two beekeepers showed up to collect the swarm at Marshalls. Jay Kaplewicz, who lives in Clarence Hollow and has a bee yard of about 25 hives in Medina, wound up collecting the swarm.

Only honeybees swarm, not the more aggressive hornets or wasps. They fill their bellies with honey for their journey and have no home to defend, so bees in a swarm are generally fairly placid. Some beekeepers don’t even wear protective equipment as they place a box close by and gently transfer the bees into it.

Many start by spraying the bees with a thick sugar-water mixture to keep them busy cleaning themselves and inhibit their ability to fly.

Kaplewicz brought an empty hive box and a soft-bristle brush and “brushed the whole cluster into the box ... and put the top on.”

The Marshalls employee was not only fascinated but grateful, and although he gave Kaplewicz a tip, the main reward for the beekeeper was being able to save a swarm of bees and fill another hive in his bee yard.

“All the people that call me are really concerned with keeping the bees alive and they are appreciative that I can keep them alive,” said Kaplewicz.

Appreciation is an emotion that only comes when the yellow and black striped, buzzing mass is safely contained in a box. People’s first reaction is usually fear, or worse, said Eric Landsittel of Hamburg.

“People get terrified,” said Landsittel, who has been keeping bees for six years. “Some people are saying, ‘It’s like the end of the world. There are bees everywhere.’ ”

To swarm or not

Bees swarm when their hive is crowded and full of honey.

As that point approaches, worker bees build special “queen cups,” round wax chambers that look like peanuts and rise above the familiar hexagonal wax cells. The queen lays eggs in those cells, and the workers feed those larvae only on royal jelly. This diet allows them to develop into queens, and one takes over the role as the hive’s only sexually mature female.

But just before the new queen hatches from her special chamber, the old queen flies away with a swarm, which can be 50,000 bees or more.

While beekeepers are usually happy to scoop up a swarm to fill a new hive, some take steps to prevent swarms from forming in their own hives.

Baglio and her husband, Michael, examine the hives for queen cells, which starts the process that leads to a swarm. When they find one, they lift that frame with bees clinging to it and place it into a new unused box, where the smaller, new colony will live.

Not all beekeepers follow that process.

“I let my bees swarm,” Landsittel said. “If that’s what they have been doing for thousands of years, who am I to think I know better and try to stop it?”

Landsittel does put empty bait hives around his bee yard, hoping that any of his swarms will find them and move in spontaneously.

“Swarming does slow things down. Maybe I don’t get as much honey, but I think it makes the bees healthier just to do what they naturally do,” he said.

He occasionally loses a swarm that bypasses his empty hives for another location. That “is just part of the fun of beekeeping,” he said.

Klimeck has planted trees about 50 feet away from his beehives – the perfect distance for a queen and her swarm to stop for the first time.

“Last year when they swarmed, the swarm landed in the tree, so it was very easy for me to go grab them and put them in a box,” Klimeck said.

“That was by design, and a lot of apiaries will be that way,” he added, using the term for where bees are kept.

Cold winters

Beekeepers say that extremely cold winters, like the past two years, might increase the number of swarms.

“The main thing that kills bees in the winter is being wet and cold,” Kaplewicz said. “But a dry, cold winter is OK because they can generate their own heat.”

A cold winter can also increase the strength of the hive by killing off mites and diseases, he said, “so I have noticed that after a tough winter they almost swarm a little bit more.”

The Baglios, who have their hives in Orchard Park, East Concord and Springville, went into winter with 30 hives and lost only one. After selling some small colony boxes, they now have about 35 hives, “because it was such a good swarm year,” Jennifer Baglio said.

Beekeepers who publicize their willingness to collect swarms can get calls almost daily during the prime swarm season. This year, that seems to have been the first two weeks of June, when eight or nine swarms were reported, but that rush was followed by five more swarms in the next few weeks.

Swarms happen as late as August, but a swarm that late can weaken the parent hive and stress the new hive, which must fill its honey stores to survive the coming winter.

Hives in houses

If the swarm chooses a house for its final destination, removing the hive can be a time-consuming and expensive project.

Homeowner calls “are not the nice calls to get,” Landsittel said, “because if they are on somebody’s house, that means they are going into the house.”

When bees are in an almost inaccessible spot in the walls of a house, said Landsittel, the only way to save them is to put a box at the entrance with a gate that allows the bees to enter and not escape.

“That takes four to six weeks, so a lot of homeowners might not be comfortable with that,” he said.

But if the hive in the wall can be reached without much damage, the wax honeycomb can be cut out and placed in an empty hive box.

After capturing a swarm, beekeepers take the new colony back to their bee yards. Kaplewicz places the hive at night, then stuffs a clump of grass into the entrance. When the bees wake in the morning, they have to move the grass out of the way to fly. Kaplewicz said.

“This triggers them to re-orient to the hive,” he said. “If you don’t do that, there can be a little bit of drifting, they might try to go into the hive next to it.”