About Those Bee Swarms…and Wasps
Canyon Lake residents report an uptick in bee swarms this November, and more than a few are asking whether hummingbird feeders left up through the winter are to blame.
At our request, Lindheimer Chapter Master Naturalists’ Marilyn McFarland reached out to local expert Mark De Kiewiet, of Bees in the East, about his take on the matter.
“It is not a good idea to keep them up and full from fall to spring. The reason is that the birds tend to stay if the feeders are regularly filled and not migrate as is their natural way. We do freeze and the birds will die if not protected from the freeze especially if the freeze is more than a day long. So please advise your readers that they should take down their hummingbird feeders in October, giving the birds enough time to head south.”
“Yes, we are noticing a lot of bee swarms ( I have four booked to remove this week), which is very unusual for this time of the year. Normally the last swarm I get a call for is in later August, beginning of September.
“Unfortunately, the swarms will not survive the winter, nor will the colonies from which they swarmed putting further stress on the honey bee population, which are already under stress due to other reasons – another article.
“Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the effect this unusual occurrence is having on our native solitary bees (reported to be over 600 different species in Texas). I view the honey bees (which we can monitor) as the ‘canaries’ for the other bee species. The warm weather and lots of rain over these past few months have also affected the wasps, who should have already gone into hibernation. They are still active and are attacking the honey bee colonies for food which is negatively impacting the bee livelihood.
“So what is happening? Scientifically I cannot say, however, I can look at the situation and make a guess from what has changed from the past years and what I am seeing in the hives.
“We have had a long wet fall, during the rain, there was little to no food for the bees, the nectar being washed out of the flowers, but after the rain, we had an abundance of nectar. Also during the rain, the queen bees stopped laying eggs due to the imbalance of food coming into the hive. Once the rain stopped, the bees brought in large amounts of nectar taking up all the available space for storage in the hives.
“This, along with the late availability of pollen, meant what when the queen needed to start laying her ‘winter’ eggs, there was little to no space. This situation put the bees into swarm mode.
“The old queen leaves with up to 7- percent of the colony leaving behind a new queen, reserves and some eggs. The colony left behind is too small to keep warm and they will die. Honey bees do not hibernate, they slow down (cold-blooded). They cannot survive for long with temperatures below 45-degrees Fahrenheit, which means the swarm has to find a home to protect itself from the cold and then fill the comb with nectar and pollen. They cannot work the wax if the temperatures in the hives are below 85 degrees in the hive, so they will also die.
“The problem we beekeepers have is that if we provide more space (comb) for the bees so that the queen can lay her winter eggs, we stand the chance of reducing the density of bees on the existing comb, which will allow for pests and diseases to take over.
“Although there must be some swarms coming for natural, wild colonies, I believe that most of the swarms I am seeing are coming from managed hives. This means that there could be quite a large number of dead colonies this winter. The impact is that the vegetable and fruit yields next spring will be lower than that of the past.
“I suppose that the next question you are going to ask me is if there is anything we humans can do to help the bees.
“For this winter, it is too late and I would love for someone to prove me wrong. However for next year, yes there is a lot that we can do in a natural way.
“Plant wildflowers, now, primary, but also nectar-producing plants for the birds, bees and butterflies. One should not only plant for spring, but for summer and fall. Bees need food all year round. The American Native Seed Company has a mix called “Bee Happy” which contains native seed for spring through to fall.
“Plant in chunks, not single flowers. Bees will not visit just one flower – too much energy is spent to do this), they will visit a flower bed of blooming flowers or a field.
“We do not want to encourage people bringing bees into Texas. Firstly, these bees are not accustomed to our climate and do not know the weather patterns, secondly, they bring in diseases that our local native and managed bees are not used to. They are also the wrong size for our weather conditions, especially for central and southern Texas.
“Reduce the use of insecticides and fungicides. The bees need fungi to make their bee bread. Insecticides are chemicals designed to kill insects, bees are insects. Yes, if one follows the instructions on the label, the pharmaceutical companies say that the dose is too low to kill the bees, but wax is a fat which absorbs the insecticides and as more and more bees bring in the low doses, the toxic levels rise, killing the young.”