Overcrowded bees fight for survival

BEEKEEPER — Wheeling beekeeper Steve Roth checks up on a swarm of bees captured in the wild earlier this year, as they are right on track for the winter.- Alan Olson

WHEELING — One of the more disturbing sights for homeowners with children is a basketball-sized cluster of bees taking up residence on their lawn equipment, but local beekeepers say most swarms are harmless and temporary — at least in the springtime.

Fall swarms still are largely benign, but in most cases spell disaster for the bee colonies, which results in two depleted colonies of bees left to muster enough honey for the winter — a losing battle in most cases, often meaning the destruction of one or both hives from starvation over the winter.

Local beekeeper Steve Roth said recent years have been particularly active for calls to the Tri-State Beekeepers Association to remove swarms, thanks to mild winters seeing more bees than normal survive the cold. When a hive is too populated, a new queen is born, and a large chunk of the hive is separated from the others to seek out and find a new home, he said. In the early stages, they may take up temporary residence on swing sets or outdoor furniture before finding a home on a nearby tree.

Roth said these swarms are almost entirely benign, with many bees too gorged on food to sting, and produce exaggerated responses from the public.

“When a colony swarms, they know in advance they’re going to swarm, so they engorge themselves on food,” Roth said. “On Thanksgiving evening, you don’t want to fight, you want to lie down on the couch. Bees are the same way. They’re not aggressive. … It’s always fun when we get a swarm call. You can always tell where it is, because as you drive through the neighborhood, people are out in the street, pulling children away. And my wife and I go up and poke at it, root through it. And I rarely get stung.

“I tell people, you’re watching the birth of another colony. They’re not going to bother you at all.”

During swarm events, Roth said many calls come to them referred from local police or fire departments, responding to calls from concerned residents. These calls can often prove quite profitable, as a captured swarm can lead to an entire new colony for local beekeepers, which can yield plenty of honey each year.

“I’d get two, three, four swarm calls a year,” Roth said, referring to his beekeeping hobby before Tri-State Beekeepers was formed around 2010. “Now, we’ve got 75 members who are taking calls. If you call 911, they’ll call us, and I bet I had 25 or 30 calls, and other members pursued swarms I wasn’t aware of. We had a tremendous number of swarms this year.

“We appreciate the calls, because you can buy 3 pounds of bees and a queen for $130. If you call me and there’s a swarm, that could be 6 pounds of bees. That’s some money for me. We put up 850 pounds of honey in the spring, another 500 pounds in the fall. We want those colonies.”