It’s hard to not get nervous whenever coming upon a honeybee hive in the woods or in the backyard. Given honeybees’ ability to protect themselves with their best defense mechanism (that painful stinger), your first reaction would understandably be to assume they are the aggressive stuff of nightmares and to run the away, which as survivalist principles suggest is the smart thing to do—especially if you come upon 10,000-20,000 bees huddled loose outside a hive, just as people in Livingston County, NY did this past week. The two swarms were large enough and in large enough populated areas to be removed by local beekeepers after causing confusion and worry among residents.
The swarms were miles apart, though with exact timing on the same day: the first swarm was spotted just north of the Village of Geneseo after landing near a local farm—after the landowners noticed the thousands of bees near their property, they called a local beekeeper, who was able to box the bees up and take them to a bee yard so they could continue to work. On the other hand, the second swarm landed in Avon near a protected property, upon which time a nearby renter called in the landlord, who then called another beekeeper to remove the bees to a bee yard as well.
While there were no injuries or incidents, Ben Gajewski, executive director of the Genesee Valley Conservancy, had to remind people in these areas that despite the large quantities of bees and possible aggression they can display when protecting colonies, these swarms themselves were not signs of aggression. As Gajewski explained, “Swarming is how honeybees reproduce…Since there is just one queen in a colony, her offspring are identical. In the springtime, a colony may create a new queen who takes a bunch of workers and ‘swarms’ as she tries to find a new location for a second colony.” As a result, the new queen mates, and those offspring are genetically different from the original colony.
Despite the gentle, non-aggressive nature of the swarms, Gajewski advised anyone who found another to do one of two things. If the swarm is staying isolated and doesn’t pose a risk, it can and should be left alone, as the swarm typically stays put for a few hours or days until it flies off to a new home. While that is the preferable solution, as Gajewski states, if the swarm is in a busy area or somewhere it could pose a risk, a beekeeper should remove the swarm to a safer location—for them and the people around.
As with many honeybee experts, Mr. Gajewski is well aware of declining honeybee populations, and for that reason he is encouraging genetic diversity and keeping honeybees alive and that others will try to do the same. He hopes these incidents will help inform others about the issues honeybees face and how important they are to us as a species.