Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bees are Beneficial

Bees pollinate our fruit crops, other flowering crops, the flowers in the garden and of course they make honey. But honey bee numbers worldwide have been falling and there is considerable worry over the implications for food crops. There appears to be a combination of reasons for the decline in bee numbers. In Europe and North America a syndrome known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) is wiping out hives and honey bee colonies in many parts of the world are under pressure from mites and viruses including the varroa mite. The varroa mite is now established in many parts of New Zealand and is reducing productivity of bees both as pollinators and as honey producers. There is also evidence that other bee species such as the bumble bees are reducing in number and over use of insecticides may be affecting all bees.

As a teenager I kept honey bees in my parent's garden. My father had bought the first hive so that my mother would get stung! You might thing that this was rather callus, but in fact it was an act of love. My mother suffered from arthritis and bee venom is said to reduce the symptoms. At the height of my honey production we had five hives. Of the five hives there was one particular colony that was much more aggressive than the others. It once chased us and several visitors from the patio while we were enjoying a barbeque. Weather conditions influenced their mood and it was a particularly muggy grey day with that feeling of thunder lurking in the distance. On such days avoid wasps and bees.

Honey Bee Swarms

Honey bee workers are brown and have lightly hairy bodies. Honey bees can form colonies containing as many as sixty thousand individuals but the average hive is likely to have around half that number; this still a lot of bees. At the centre of the colony is the queen who is little more than an egg producing machine. A few unfertilised eggs become fertile males, but almost all eggs hatch as infertile female worker bees. However, if a female egg is fed a special food known as royal jelly the egg hatches as a new fertile queen. Several queens may hatch at the same time and they fight for the right to take over the colony. The old queen, or sometimes new queens, will leave the nest, taking with her a large number of ‘loyal’ workers in search of a new home. This is a swarm.

Swarms will contain many thousands of bees. Scouts are sent out from the swarm in search of a suitable nest site. The swarm may bivouac on tree branch or wall waiting for the scouts to return and lead them to the nest site they have found. The site may not be deemed suitable by the colony and the process may be repeated until a suitable home is found.

When swarming, bees are usually quite docile and are not likely to sting unless provoked. If a bee lands on you try not to react violently. I appreciate that this is easier said than done, but violent movement is only likely to result in a sting. However, if stung the sting releases a pheromone that will induce other bees to sting so stay calm and move away from the bees.

Honey bees sting to defend themselves and their colony. The sting is painful and will cause a reddened swelling in most people. Some people are unfortunate in that the sting will cause anaphylactic shock and they must keep adrenalin on hand for immediate treatment if stung.

Bees can only sting once. Their sting is barbed and as the bee is brushed off the sting is pulled out of the rear of the bee. The bee will then die from the wound but the sting will continue to pump toxin from the attached balloon like toxin gland. Do not pinch the sting to remove it. This would only serve to pump the toxin into your skin. Instead use a fingernail to scrape out the sting.

If a bee swarm arrives at your property call a local beekeeper; see the National Beekeepers Association swarm collection contact list on their website or look in Yellow Pages. A beekeeper will usually be happy to collect a swarm for use in their hives.

If the swarm moves into the eaves or other part of your buildings it might only be resting and leave again in the next day or two. If, however, a swarm stays more than a few days, it is likely to set up a nest. Once a colony has been in place for more than a few months it will have begun a honey store. In some cases the colony cannot be collected and must be destroyed because it poses a hazard. Destruction of the colony can be achieved using powder type insecticide such as Carbaryl, but the honey store will also need to be removed. If honey is left in place it will continue to attract other swarms and wasps and the problem can be ongoing.

Bumble Bees

Bumble bees are individually larger than honey bees and are quite rounded, hairy and distinctly yellow and black. Bumble bees are social insects but their colonies are much smaller than those of honey bees. Bumble bees can sting and bite but rarely do.

Bumble bee nests should only be destroyed if they are in positions that pose a risk to people and cannot be moved. Nests are often found in compost heaps or amongst piles of grass clippings. In this case it is sometimes possible to use a large shovel to carefully lift the material, including the nest, and move it to a more suitable site.

If destruction is the only option the colony can be destroyed using carbaryl powder such as NO Wasps Powder or Carbaryl Insect Control puffed or spread around the entrance to the nest.

What goes "zzub zzub?"
A bee flying backwards.

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