Dan Kraus of Bend brought me the good news about a month ago. Dan's a meteorologist and astronomer, who, like most people who deal with the stars and the weather, can't help but be interested in other things that take place around him. He called with the message I love to hear: "Jim, there's a swarm of bees in an apple tree next door."
Central Oregon, and especially Bend, is a wonderful place for bee swarms to suddenly appear in spring. That's because over the years, beekeepers like myself "lost" bees when they swarmed. Sometimes it was out of just plain bad beekeeping that we allowed a swarm to escape, while at other times we were doing other things and didn't know our bees had swarmed. Offhand, I'd say there are at least 25 wild bee colonies within the Bend is city limits. They're usually in hollow trees, but I've removed them from the walls of houses, water shut-off boxes, and there's a huge one right in downtown Bend that produces strong swarms every spring.
Bees swarming from wild hives are the best thing that has ever happened to them. They've been coping with unknown and horrifying circumstance that have culminated with colony collapse syndrome (CCS), and other factors that have been killing them by the billions. To this day, no one really understands why CCS and other factors have led to the death of the bees. Only one thing is certain: the bees probably know, and they're trying to do something about it.
That box of bees you see above was generated by the swarm I gathered when Dan called me, and are now the best thing I've seen in my 50 years of beekeeping. They give me hope that our bees are recovering. In just a little over a month, that swarm has multiplied to what you see today.
Without the help of Dan's neighbor, John, who was sympathetic to what I was doing to install the bees in my brooder box, it would have been a tough job. I explained that bee swarms are usually made up of about 5,000 to 10,000 bees that have no axe to grind with people - normally docile and non-threatening. With a big grin, neighbor John took hold of the limb holding the swarm, and even held the ladder while I cut the limb from the tree. I carried the huge ball of bees to the brooder box and, with one hardy shake, they were in.
This "docile" business of a bee swarm normally carries no threat to you and me, but if you're a dog, bear or some other beast with lots of hair, watch out. While that bee swarm was trying to find a safe place to land, another neighbor's dog got mixed in with them and he was hit pretty hard.
After the bees were in the box, I placed all 10 frames back in, put the lid back on and as the saying goes, "Let nature take her course." No one was stung, and peace and harmony settled in. In fact, the workers immediately set to work fanning the queen's pheromones out of the box to let other members of the swarm know that this was their new home.
A swarm is the result of a hive where bee numbers have increased to the point where there is no more room for them. A new queen is raised and the old queen and her entourage are kicked out, hence a swarm. However, an increase in bee numbers is the best possible news for bees and beekeepers. It means the bees are not only surviving whatever dilemma was killing them, but they are possibly building a resistance to whatever the problem(s) is/are.
In my opinion, it was the overuse of pesticides, monocultures and we beekeeper's "tampering" that may have started the whole mess in the first place. Varroa destructor, a mite that somehow got here from Europe, hit the North American bees like a sledgehammer. Beekeepers - myself included - were delighted when the chemical industry produced "pest strips." They gave us a miticide that had powerful chemicals in it to kill mites; so powerful we could not place it in the hives during the time the bees were making honey for human consumption. We believed our mite problems were over and settled back with a sigh of relief.
But, we forgot the DDT debacle coupled with natural survival. Yes, the pest strip killed most of the mites and there was a temporary respite, but the strips didn't kill all the mites - just like DDT didn't kill all the mosquitoes. Survival of the fittest entered in and we unwittingly cultivated a new breed of chemical-resistant mites that smacked the bees even harder and all hell broke loose.
That factor, along with supersaturated pesticides throughout the landscape, and other health issues, hammered the bees and down they went. Literally billions of bees died in about a 10-year period. Commercial beekeepers lost thousands of hives that were filled with millions of bees. You name it, just about every problem bees could have slammed them from all sides.
But now I think we may be seeing the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel." That beautiful bunch of bees in the photo above gives me hope. I think there's a super queen in there who has survived some very tough times. I know she's an old-timer because she has a paint spot on the dorsal side of her thorax. That means she came from a commercial source, and she's been through at least two swarms in her lifetime. (With that remarkable longevity, she's the one who should be writing this article.)
The bottom line of this is that (I think) we're seeing an end to unnecessary bee deaths because:
1. People who understand the importance of helping a bee swarm to find a new home are helping. (Call me if you have a swarm of bees, I'll share the honey with you, 541-388-1659.)
2. Pest-control people are leaving bees alone, asking people to call a beekeeper
3. Gardeners are reducing and/or eliminating the of chemicals in backyard gardens.
4. The bees themselves are solving their mite and other health issues.
All this will (hopefully) result in the return of honey bees and we we'll enjoy a big honey flow in the immediate future - maybe even next year.