Bees and You

A beekeeper works with a hive in a field.

April 15, 2016 (COUNTY NEWS SERVICE)

(Originally published June, 25, 2013)

By Tracy Ellis Ph.D.
County Entomologist

Springtime is when we finally get outside to do the yard work we’ve been thinking about all winter — trim the shrubbery, cut those weeds and deal with other landscaping needs. Springtime is also when blooming flowers come out, and along with them, the bees.

It’s the time when encounters with bees are more likely. And the best way to be safe is to avoid surprising bee swarms or nests, say our experts at the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.

Bees are an important part of the environment and agriculture. They pollinate flowers to produce many of the foods we eat. But as we all know, they can act in defense of their nests and sting us to protect their young and honey.

There are two types of honey bees in San Diego: European bees and Africanized bees. European honey bees are the traditional type kept by beekeepers. They’re used to pollinate crops and produce honey, and they’re generally found in white boxes stacked in fields or in your neighbor’s garden. European bees are the more docile domesticated bees.

The swarms and nests of the wild or uncultivated bees around San Diego are mainly Africanized bees, or so-called “killer bees.” Africanized bees overtook Southern California more than a decade ago. These bees react defensively to common disturbances, especially to vibrations such as lawn equipment. They are more aggressive, attack more readily in greater numbers, and chase their target for longer distances.

Bees are not a threat when they are visiting flowers and you are standing back a safe distance. If you see bees flying overhead in a large group, that is a swarm and they are trying to find a new home. The swarms land and form a cluster the size of a football and may land on a sidewalk, a car, the side of a house, or a tree. Swarms are only temporary and hang around usually just a couple of days. They are generally not a threat if left alone.

Hives, on the other hand, are a stationary nest of honey bees, where they raise their young and store their food: the nectar — which is made into honey — and pollen collected from flowers. Bees are territorial around their hive and will react defensively if disturbed. Honey bees often nest in dark, quiet, protected places such as eaves, attics, trees, shrubbery, openings around pipes, chimneys, gutters and down spouts, abandoned vehicles, under the lid of compost piles, abandoned tires and utility boxes. You can tell it’s a hive when bees are making regular flights in and out of a main door or opening. Be more cautious around a hive; especially since most wild hives in San Diego are aggressive Africanized honey bees.

A honey bee swarm or nest will have a distinct buzzing sound. Loud motors of lawn equipment will mask the cautionary noises of a buzzing hive. You are at greater risk for unknowingly disturbing a hive when you are operating lawn equipment such as weed whackers, mowers or trimmers. Before you start your machinery, you may want to take a walk around the area. Listen and look for bees– from the ground level to above your head in the trees.

And if you encounter a swarm or bee nest? Do not disturb the bees. Keep children and pets away. If they are disrupted already, move to a safe location. Alert your household and neighbors about the potential danger, and consider using cones or flagging tape to show where it is. Evaluate whether it is a swarm or a hive from a safe distance.

If you have decided they are a swarm and are not in your way–where your kids play or in high traffic area– it’s best to leave them alone and patiently wait for them to fly away.

If you have decided it’s a hive, it’s better to act sooner than later. Don’t delay in removing it. Hives are easier and cheaper to remove when small. The removal fee for a young hive is much less than the potential costs of fixing the damage caused by a larger hive. Also, as hives grow larger with young and honey, bees are naturally more defensive, putting you or a passerby at greater risk of being stung. .

Contact a beekeeper, bee removal, or a pest control service and shop around for the best price.  The County and cities will remove bee hives only from public property – such as a parks, libraries, or streets.

Bees are useful, but if bees interfere with you or your neighbors’ normal outdoor activities, put children or pets at risk, or are damaging property, do not feel bad for controlling them.

If you question whether it is a nest or a swarm, if they European or Africanized bees, or how to bee-proof your home, please contact the County of San Diego, Agriculture Weights and Measures bee information hotline at 1-800-200- BEES (2337).

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