RALEIGH — Tulip poplars are in bloom across Eastern North Carolina. The appearance of the bright yellow-and-orange flowers also marks the height of swarm season for honeybees, which are busy collecting nectar, building up their hives and producing a stockpile of honey to survive the flowerless winter.
Bees are more active now than at any time of year, but apiologists, the scientists who study bees, don’t want you to kill them. Their numbers have dwindled significantly and they are vital to the ecosystem. And beekeepers say their buzzing is not a reason for concern. They are less likely to sting humans than some of their hymenoptera relatives, including hornets and wasps.
When a hive reaches capacity, bees break away in dramatic – and occasionally frightening – fashion to build a hive around a new, fertile queen bee. First, dozens of scout bees join the female to search for a place to start anew: maybe a low-hanging branch or a picnic table, usually near the original hive and always in a place the queen likes best.
Once the site is selected, a swarm of worker bees – thousands to tens of thousands – flocks there and works around the clock crafting honeycombs. A shifting yellow and black skin engulfs the place until there is enough of a hive for the bees to call home.
If you are concerned by a swarm, keep your distance and then relax.
“Don’t worry,” said Kim Underhill, a beekeeper who has seven hives at her East Raleigh home. Bees usually sting only when they feel threatened, such as when a person swats them away or unknowingly encroaches on a hive.
People need bees
Charles Heatherly, a Raleigh beekeeper with more than 20 years of experience, said it is important that people protect bees rather than fear them. They play an integral role in the ecosystem, pollinating many plants that otherwise would struggle to reproduce, including almonds, onions and cotton.
As it is, the population has dwindled quickly in the past few years for reasons that still puzzle experts. The trend is so significant that it has been labeled colony collapse disorder. Many factors contribute. North Carolina weather patterns have grown more extreme in recent history, insecticides and pesticides targeted at other insects take a toll on bees, and a parasitic mite that thwarts hive growth is prevalent in the South.
One way people can help is by calling the county chapter of the N.C. Beekeepers Association if they have a nuisance hive, so the bees can be relocated instead of killed. It also helps to spray pesticides in the evening, when bees are less active, rather than early in the day.
While it may seem insignificant for a swarm to be killed, Heatherly said it is important to realize that the tens of thousands of bees in a swarm will help increase local crop yields if left alone.
“This year’s losses seem particularly heavy here,” he said. “The jury is out on why. It’s a lot of problems coming together, but we need people to help how they can.”