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By Sherry Listgarten

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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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Honey bees!

Uploaded: May 10, 2021
Yesterday we were getting ready to eat dinner outside when my sister, who was visiting, said “Hey Sherry, have you seen that swarm in your tree?” “What?”

It turns out there was a newly arrived swarm of honeybees in our apricot tree! A swarm is a group of bees that recently left an overcrowded hive and is in search of a new home. They are resting temporarily, often just for a day.


A honeybee swarm in our apricot tree Sunday evening

I remembered reading this Nextdoor post a few months ago, urging people to call a beekeeper if they see one of these, often in April and May in our area. The beekeeper can help the swarm to find a good home.

Joseph Borison came by this morning to take a look. It looked to me like a bunch of bees had flown away, but he said sometimes a swarm just compresses when it’s cooler.


The smaller honeybee swarm on Monday morning

The bees in our tree were European honeybees, Apis mellifera, “mellifera” means honey-bearing. They are fairly common here, though not native. This is a small swarm.


A close-up of the honeybee swarm

Joseph climbed up a ladder and shook the branch, holding a large board beneath the hive. He is not wearing any protection because bees in a swarm are generally docile. They don’t have much to protect since they are on their way to find a home (hive). And they are typically full of honey from leaving their previous hive, so they are pretty relaxed.


Going up to shake the swarm and catch the bees on the board

The disoriented bees fell onto a board he was holding, which he then placed on the ground.


Placing much of the swarm on the ground. Some remains clinging to the branch.

Joseph had brought with him a so-called “nuc box”, with some comb inside to help attract the bees and make them feel at home. He positioned it next to the board so that they would quickly find somewhere safe to go.


Placing the nuc box down by the board with the disoriented bees.

Slowly they moved into the box. Here is a video.


Bees begin to enter the nuc box.

It’s important to make sure that the queen enters the box. Joseph identified her by her somewhat longer body.


Pointing out the queen, which you want to be sure goes into the box.

The queen in our swarm was not very large and was also not moving slowly, indicating that she is a queen that hasn’t yet mated. Once the hive is established, she will go on a mating flight and then settle down to breed.

Joseph also showed me a drone, which is not able to sting. He picked one up and held it between his fingers.


This picture shows different types of honeybees, the workers and queen, which are female, and the drones, which are male. The males cannot sting. Source:
Artificial Bee Colony Optimization


As workers were entering the box, others stood outside and raised the ends of their abdomens, where the Nasonov gland releases a pheromone to attract other bees. In this case, the bees were trying to get the remaining bees in the tree to come down. After a few minutes, the bees left the tree and started flying around before settling on the board.


You can see some of the worker bees here raising the backs of their abdomens to release the Nasonov pheromone. This helped to get the remaining bees out of the tree and towards the new hive box.

On the apricot branch where the swarm had been, you can see some beeswax. This may attract a swarm next year.


Bees wax on the branch where the swarm had been.

The bees were taking a while to enter the box, so Joseph left, to return in a few hours with a smoker to help encourage them to go in. Unfortunately, by the time he returned, the bees had left the box. Presumably some scouts had found a better place to go!

Joseph said he has been moving about one swarm a day for the past few months. He takes them to farms, to schools, to community gardens. Many people and organizations want bees to help pollinate, and local swarms represent healthy colonies that have over-wintered successfully, so they are a great place to start. While you can buy bees, they are not cheap (maybe $100-$200 to start a hive) and they are not as likely to be successful.

Take a look around at some flowering trees or shrubs near you and see what they like. In my yard, they seem to like the catmint (nepeta), salvia, bottlebrush trees, and lemon trees, as well as the bird bath. I recently bought some “pollinator friendly” wooly sunflower at the local nursery, which has a great natives section. Have you seen honeybees around here, and if so where? Seeing this swarm was a lot of fun for us!

Notes and References
1. Thank you to the Santa Clara Valley Beekeeper's Guild!

2. The Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County has a nice writeup on swarming.

3. The University of Arkansas has a lot of information on bees and beekeeping.

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Comments

 +   3 people like this
Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 10, 2021 at 4:21 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

Great story with fantastic photos! Thanks!


 +   2 people like this
Posted by James Wong, a resident of Downtown North,
on May 10, 2021 at 5:28 pm

James Wong is a registered user.

Honeybees are OK but if you have a hornet or yellow jacket nest in your backyard it is best to have them exterminated. [Portion removed]


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 10, 2021 at 9:44 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@KOhlson: I'm glad you like the post! It was really fun to see and the bee guy was very knowledgeable.

@James: FWIW, Joseph told me that it is illegal to kill bees here, but I wasn't able to verify that. He did say that most exterminators will know the difference and will try to handle bees differently from wasps and yellow jackets and hornets. So that's good!


 +   19 people like this
Posted by Lorne Gerhardt, a resident of another community,
on May 11, 2021 at 10:00 am

Lorne Gerhardt is a registered user.

The drone bees (males) lead an ideal life. They get to reside full-time in the hive, eat honey, and mate with the queen. That is why they do not need stingers. My working wife has often accused me of leading a similar lifestyle.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Andrew Clark, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 11, 2021 at 12:55 pm

Andrew Clark is a registered user.

The flavor of natural honey is dependent upon the local plants. The best I've had is from Tupelo, MS. Van Morrison even paid tribute to it along with the movie 'Ulee's Gold' starting the late Peter Fonda and Patricia Richardson (of TV's Home Improvement). SF Bay Area honey is nothing to write home about.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by William Hitchens, a resident of Waverly Park,
on May 11, 2021 at 3:25 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

Our beekeeper is named Michael Stang, his business is Stang's Apiaries, and you can reach him at 408-621-6243. He's very anxious to preserve and propagate bees, so he'll typically show up within hour or two to collect swarms. Give him my wife's name --- Alice Johnson --- as a referral.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Robbie B., a resident of Downtown North,
on May 12, 2021 at 6:42 am

Robbie B. is a registered user.

"...it is illegal to kill bees here, but I wasn't able to verify that." The African killer bee might be subject to extermination. They were introduced into Latin America to increase honey production by cross-breeding with the European honey bee. The problem is that they are both a dominant species and very aggressive. African killer bees will chase a perceived threat for 5/8 of a mile with a kamikaze like attack. Swarms of them have been known to infiltrate the southern U.S. from time to time.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by StarSpring, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 12, 2021 at 10:02 am

StarSpring is a registered user.

Always delighted to see articles on bees! We've had one swarm in the neighborhood so far this spring. Keeping bees is a delightful hobby and easy to do in most residential backyards. Who could object to busy pollinators and free honey? :)


 +   2 people like this
Posted by margomca, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on May 12, 2021 at 12:25 pm

margomca is a registered user.

I recently contacted a bee removal person to ask for a hive to be installed in my garden, as I'd noticed I had no bees and I have a big garden. The hive is in a corner and the bees are busy (as a ....) pollinating my fruit trees, raspberries, vegetable plants and flowers. When I see one, I send him a mental thank you. They are not frightening, not aggressive, just doing their job. The man who brought my swarm explained that they sense one's energy. I welcome them and they reciprocate. I'm going to have tons of raspberries and tomatoes in a month or so. The way we keep bees healthy is by buying/planting only organic or non-gmo plants. Ordinary plants are bred with something that discourages weeds, but is also toxic to bees. Pull the weeds and save the bees. Please!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Esther Bergman, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on May 12, 2021 at 3:47 pm

Esther Bergman is a registered user.

> "if you have a hornet or yellow jacket nest in your backyard it is best to have them exterminated." We use those yellow jacket traps that you hang. Using a small piece of meat as bait, they fly into the container trap but cannot get out. [Portion removed]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Twentse, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on May 12, 2021 at 3:51 pm

Twentse is a registered user.

Thank you for a fascinating article. I learned a lot.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by loren freeman - m.b.a., a resident of Stanford,
on May 12, 2021 at 4:41 pm

loren freeman - m.b.a. is a registered user.

If you have blossoming fruit trees (e.g. orange, peach, apples etc.) and a backyard hive, your honey will tend to taste better. Weedpatch derived honey (from dandelions, wild mustard, and milkweed) is generally not as flavorful.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on May 15, 2021 at 7:52 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

Thanks for the very cool article! We always get lots of bees showing up at our little Meyer lemon tree -- they do seem to like citrus. PS - Nice that you have an apricot tree. Decades ago, there were still remnants of the apricot orchards that covered the area in the 1st half of the 20th century, and roadside apricot "stands" (usually just a table) with delicious local apricots for sale. You could even take your apricots down to Santa Clara, rent a drying frame, and come back in a week to pick up your dried apricots.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Rock The Boat, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on May 15, 2021 at 10:51 am

Rock The Boat is a registered user.

[Post removed]


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Bruce Karney, a resident of Mountain View,
on May 15, 2021 at 7:47 pm

Bruce Karney is a registered user.

Great photos and story, and I'm sorry your swarm moved on to another home. We've had honey bees since a swarm came to our home during cold, wet weather in April 2006. In a good year they will produce 9 gallons of honey for us humans and 9 more gallons for their own use in a space only about 3' x 3' x 6' high (the hive box). If you can sell honey for $16/pint jar, that's $128 of honey per sq. ft. of land Subtracting the cost of the jars and lids and labels, that's still yields $100/sq. ft. -- almost enough to pay the property taxes on your home in some parts of the County!


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