West Texas bees doubt groundhog’s extended winter prediction

By Steve Byrns, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

SAN ANGELO – SPLAT! West Texas honey bees are on the move, so motorists shouldn’t be surprised if their windshields are strafed by a hapless swarm in coming weeks, said a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service entomologist.

Dr. Charles Allen, of San Angelo, said the unusually warm February, touted as the warmest on record here, has put honey bees in the mood to travel.

A swarm of honey bees high atop a mesquite tree in West Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Steve Byrns)

A swarm of honey bees high atop a mesquite tree in West Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Steve Byrns)

“It’s a sign spring has arrived, at least to the bees,” Allen said. “Usually the number of swarms goes up if the area had sufficient rainfall the previous fall, a situation much of Texas enjoyed.”

Allen said the itch to move can stem from a number of factors. Overcrowding in the colony, warm temperatures, a shortage of food, sudden availability of nectar and pollen, or even the presence of honey bee parasites can cause honey bees to swarm.

“But beyond these factors, swarming is the primary way honey bees increase the number of colonies in an area and spread to new areas,” he said. “Typically, the old queen and about 60 percent of the bees in a colony leave, while the remaining bees stay and raise a new queen”

Swarms fly from the colony and usually collect in a high place not too far from their former home, he said. There, they form a ball or mass of bees attached to a branch or other structure with the queen safely in the middle. From the mass, scout bees can be seen coming and going in search of a new home. Swarms may stay for only a short time, or as long as a day or two, depending on the length of time it takes to find suitable new quarters.

“It is a common misconception that swarms are dangerous to people,” Allen said. “Though a swarm may appear as a fearsome seething mass of angry insects to the uninformed, the truth is that bees, and wasps too for that matter, sting almost exclusively to defend their young or brood. Swarms don’t have ‘baby bees’ to protect, so even the most irritable, pugnacious Africanized honey bees are docile during a swarm. Like the boll weevil in the old song, swarming honeybees are ‘just huntin’ a home.’”

Allen warns that in Texas most wild bees nowadays are Africanized, so as soon as the queen starts laying eggs and a brood starts to develop, their attitude quickly shifts. The workers, now with young to protect, will become defensive and will attack anything they see as a threat.

Because of the hyper-aggressive African genetic makeup most wild honey bees now have, elimination or removal by a beekeeper in and around homes is a “must do” to keep families and pets from being stung, Allen said.

“Since bees do not orient well in darkness, late evening, early morning or the middle of the night are good times to remove or eliminate wild bee colonies near homes, “ Allen said. “Honey bees need polarized light such as the sun provides, to be able to locate things. So a flashlight, which does not emit polarized light, works well in the dark as the bees are unable to orient in its light. And since they are cold blooded and less active when the temperature is cold, removal or elimination is less dangerous on a cool to cold night.”

Allen said he does not advocate destroying colonies unless there is a danger to humans, livestock or pets. He said some AgriLife Extension offices have a list of beekeepers who might be contacted for bee removal. Barring that, most exterminators also deal with bee issues.


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