As the petals fall and the days grow ever shorter between the equinox and solstice, honeybees are out in force among the fading flowers.
Although bees consistently earn their reputation as busy, in autumn you may encounter more bee activity around foliage than you noticed in the hot summer months. This could be in the form of a swarm, meaning a transitory community of bees without wax honeycombs.
The hive mind’s reasoning boils down to basic survival skills: the need to feed and the need to breed.
Food sources for pollinators naturally dwindle in the cooler months, even in Pasadena. This creates urgency among bees, accelerating the need to get a new queen successfully mated and rear more workers before a frost sets in.
In Pasadena it’s not unusual to encounter a swarm as the end of the year approaches. And this keeps bee rescuers Miguel Gutierrez, Karo Kalpakyan and David Bock on call to intervene.
Karo Kalpakyan (www.facebook.com/beesanctuaryglendale) is a licensed general contractor who found himself in the role of bee rescuer as a surprising offshoot of his usual work.
He fondly recalls his childhood in his native Armenia, where his education included trips into wooded areas and forests where children were taught about the lives of insects, birds, wildlife, trees, edible and non-edible plants, and how to appreciate them. “Kids in America usually don’t learn these things, but they need to,” he says.
“Bees are like humans,” says Kalpakyan. “All bees have different jobs. The drones feed the queen jelly. The guards stand at the entrance and keep the ants and wasps away. They work, they clean all day, and nectar is their reward.”
Kalpakyan uses an infra-red device linked to his mobile phone to detect tell-tale heat in walls where a bee colony may be present, then decides how best to remove them. Indoors, this may require cutting a section out of a wall, calling upon his contracting skills.
A smoker is a standard part of any beekeeper’s gear. Still, Kalpakyan kicks it up a notch by burning cannabis sticks and stems to quickly calm bees as he removes them from between walls using a vacuum container, especially around a busy area where people are present. “Sometimes it backfires, though, and the bees get too stoned to move,” he adds with a laugh.
Kalpakyan purchased property in Gorman for the comfort of his relocated bees. He even dug a pond for them there, explaining, “Bees don’t really drink the water, but they sprinkle each other, then fan their wings for ventilation to keep the hive from overheating, like air-conditioning.”
Miguel Gutierrez (@altadenahoney) comments, “This year, because of the rain and subsequent flowers and nectar flow, we had a lot of swarms. I started doing bee removals because people would ask me to help them take care of bee issues in their garage, in their shed, or compost bin or whatever. Most of those people, like myself, want to stay away from dousing the environment with pesticides and would prefer to relocate the bees rather than exterminate them.”
“The rescued bees always end up going to local beekeepers in the Altadena / Pasadena area who take good care of them,” says Gutierrez. He sells honeycomb and honey in addition to offering no-kill bee removal.
David Bock (@buzzedhoneys) is a beekeeper and apian advocate who has written content for National Geographic, Animal Planet, MTV and Food Network. Bock refers to Los Angeles as “the honeybee capital of the world,” and not only because of our region’s year-round profusion of blossoming plants. Equally important to the equation is Southern California’s modern, often minimally insulated building construction.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the larger metropolitan Los Angeles area is home to about 19 million people, and Bock observes, “This means that there are innumerable buildings where there is virtually no insulation between the walls, creating ideal spaces for honeybee colonies.”
Adding to the problem are cable television and Internet installers who drill holes that are the perfect size for honeybees to enter and exit.
Bock receives at least one call a week to humanely remove a swarm or hive and generally charges between $200 – $350 for the service, depending upon how difficult the bees are to access. He concedes that extermination is usually cheaper.
Bee rescuers generally will remove wasps as well, and Bock prefers to vacuum them out and relocate them versus using insecticide.
Bees are at their most active when it’s warm and they require more warmth when light levels are low. They’re at their buzziest when the air temperature is between 60 and 75F, although they can manage short flights when it’s a bit chillier. And they need epic energy to produce honeycomb, essential to surviving even a mild winter.
A swarm often resembles a melting Dali watch, drooping heavily from a tree branch. Bees also love cavities of almost any kind, from the gap between walls to a hollow log to an owl house. They also seek out snug digs in barrels and utility boxes.
Why do bees swarm in the fall or any time? Occupants of a hive may abscond — that’s the technical term — when confronted with a food shortage sometimes referred to as “nectar dearth,” or a parasite infestation. The Varroa destructor mite is a common culprit, but beehives may also be raided by wax moths, small hive beetles, ants and yellowjackets, even mice.
Skunks and loud noises may spook the colony. Or, the cause may be simply the decision to divide and conquer — yes, bee colonies are a democracy, and the members “vote” on this decision using scent and dance moves. It’s time to form a new colony and crown a new queen when the current hive becomes uncomfortably crowded.
Conservationists have a lot to say about the future of bees, honeybees in particular. Although colony collapse has become a generic trigger phrase for nature lovers, the story is, in fact, a bit more complicated. Like it or not, domesticated honeybees are an invasive species. Like the horse, honeybees were once native to North America, then died out, only to be reintroduced by Europeans years later. Fourteen million or so years later in the case of the honeybee.
True, there were about 4,000 native bee species on our continent before settlers ferried their Apis mellifera hives across the Atlantic in the 17th century. But none of these natives produce honey. Native bees, not honeybees, are the ones in real trouble today due to habitat loss and insecticide use.
Native bees, including threatened and endangered bumblebees, are the species that pollinate our native pumpkins, blueberries and tomatoes, delicious indigenous food plants which honeybees don’t visit. Native bees are often more tolerant than honeybees of cool or moist conditions, meaning that they can forage effectively for longer periods throughout the year. And native bees also appear to be less prone to the parasites and viruses associated with honeybee colony collapse.
Many myths surround our beloved honeybee. This insect was never, ever called “white man’s flies” by Algonquian or other First Nations people — that term was made up by an imaginative white man, Puritan Pastor John Eliot. And, if honeybees were wiped from the face of the earth tomorrow, pollination would not cease to be. Native insects including butterflies, wasps, moths, bats, and hummingbirds are highly efficient pollinators.
What to do to be good to bees, all pollinators, and the planet? Let a corner of your garden go feral, even allowing some flowering weeds to flourish. Don’t use insecticides if you can possibly help it.
And Miguel Gutierrez advises, “Don’t swat at bees when they’re just minding their own beeswax — you’re more likely to agitate them and get stung that way. Bees are unlikely to be aggressive when they’re out foraging. Most of the time, when they get near people, they’re usually exploring, not attacking,” he says.
“If you discover a hive or swarm, leave it alone. If you need to get it relocated, call a professional who knows how to deal with bees and has the proper equipment. And be sure you’re talking to a rescuer, not an exterminator.”