April is the start of honey bee swarm season.  What is a swarm?  A honey bee swarm is not to be feared and is not a mob of angry insects looking to attack anyone or anything.  A honey bee colony is best thought of as a super-organism, not tens of thousands of individual bees, but one living entity.   A swarm is how a honey bee colony reproduces.   Honeybees are the only bees to overwinter together as a colony.  That’s why they collect so much pollen for protein and nectar to turn into honey, to have food to eat during the winter while they cluster tightly for warmth. Come late winter, the queen bee starts laying more eggs, and the colony starts filling their hive to capacity as the weather warms.   As their home gets crowded, a healthy colony will start making a new queen, and before it hatches, the old queen will take about half of the colony and swarm to go find a new home.    This swarm of several thousand bees will take rests here and there on trees, fences, signs, mailboxes while they decide where the best and safest  new home location is.    A swarm of honeybees is actually at it’s most docile as they have no brood (babies) or stores (food: pollen and honey) to protect.  However, they are protecting the queen.    So do not fear, and consider yourself lucky if you happen to see a swarm this year.

A fuzzy gold to brownish honeybee dies when it stings you.  It doesn’t want to sting you and will often bump you several times before stinging.  Their alarm pheromone smells similar to bananas.  Honey bees in the summer typically live 4-6 weeks, and winter bees several months.  The single queen honey bee typically will live 3-5 years.   A healthy thriving honey bee colony will have around 30,000-60,000 bees.  Around 90% are the female workers.   Around 10% are the larger male drones who are sting-less, and do nothing in the hive but eat and make messes. (that’s why they get kicked out in the late fall) Their sole purpose is to go out to find virgin queens to mate with, to pass on the colony genetics.  Honey bees hover and glide more than they fly.

A smooth bright yellow jacket is a wasp, and can sting you repeatedly without dying.  A wasp’s venom is alkaline where as honey bee venom is acidic.    Of the people allergic to wasp stings only 2% are actually allergic to honey bee stings.     Setting queen yellow jacket traps out in the early spring will help if you have YJ problems.  Pouring hot soapy water at night on ground YJ nests is very effective.  Yellow jacket ground nests often have more than one entrance so find the other one and cover it up.  Yellow jackets zig-zag when they fly more like a common house fly.  They have a similar shape to honey bees, usually a little smaller.

Norco resident beekeeper Justin Shiffler has volunteered to be the township’s resource and contact hub for anything and everything related to honey bees and all native pollinators.  This happily married father of four has three apiary sites (bee yards)  in Chester County and belongs to all the area beekeeping associations:  Chester County Beekeepers Association, Montgomery County Beekeepers Association, Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild, Berks County Beekeepers,  PA State Beekeeper Association, Eastern Apiculture Society, & the American Apitherapy Society.  He has his PA Apiary License. All his colonies and locations are registered with the PA Dept.of Agriculture.

If you see a swarm this year, or have unwanted honey bees taking up residence someplace bothersome, please contact Justin and he will coordinate someone to come out, free of charge, and make sure they find a new proper home.

If you know of any wild / feral  honey bee colony locations please get in touch as well so Justin can help a citizen science project from the Penn State Extension to get a small sample (15-30 bees) from wild colonies to compare disease loads with managed kept honey bees.  Very important research going on.   The wild colonies will not be moved or harmed.

If you have seen swarms in the past that most likely means there are wild colonies close by.  Justin would be thankful to be notified of those locations so he can get research samples from those healthy swarm producing feral colonies.

If you would like to learn more about honey bees, the current problems pollinators face,  what you can do to help them (mow less, plant more), honey bee educational presentations, or anything bee or products of the hive related, contact Justin and he’ll be sure to get you the needed resources. 

The PA Bee Law and Best Management Practices will soon be available on the Norco website for those interested in learning more about beekeeping in our state.

Justin Shiffler    JnJShiffler@yahoo.com   484-752-2527