Goodness gracious, great balls of... bees?

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Now that I’ve got you singing Jerry Lee Lewis, some of you have probably seen what looks like a giant ball of bees on a tree branch or the side of a building. This is what is known as a swarm. Swarms are typically only seen with honey bees and are for the most part not aggressive.

As with most animals, the old adage, “If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you,” applies. Swarms are not a bad thing; it simply means that the bees are on the move.

Swarms can happen for two reasons: for space and/or reproduction. Swarming for space means that the colony has outgrown its hive location, while swarming for reproduction means that they are creating another hive to increase the bee population. While the two reasons are different, the basic process is roughly the same.

First, the colony either runs out of space in the current hive or its numbers have grown so great it is time for the hive to split into multiple hives. Next, the worker bees create what are known as queen cells; these are large cells that house larvae that will be raised to be a new queen.

If the worker bees prepare more than one queen cell, whichever one hatches first will kill the other queen cells to ensure her reign. Prior to the hatching of the new queen, the old queen and about half of the bees will leave the hive. They first will attach to a temporary location, such as a tree branch or the side of a building. At this point, scout bees will go and locate a permanent new hive. Once found, the hive moves to the new location. There are now two hives, each about half the size of the original hive.

But what about the other kinds of bees that are found in the area?

In this area, we have a few different species of bees. The most well-known are the bumblebees. Bumblebees are known for their large size and coloration, usually black with yellow stripes. Bumblebees are social bees, meaning they have a queen and worker bees, just like honey bees. The difference is that a bumblebee queen is the only bee to survive the winter below ground, while a honeybee hive will survive a winter, hopefully. Bumblebees are actually better suited for the pollination of certain crops. Typically, greenhouse crops are pollinated using a cardboard hive of bumblebees because of their lifespan of about 16 weeks as a hive.

I imagine a lot of folks have seen what looks like bumblebees flying around dead wood and carving holes about the size of a dime in the wood. These are actually not bumblebees, but carpenter bees. The key difference between these two is that the carpenter bee’s abdomen is black and shiny, while a bumblebee’s is covered in hair.

Did you know that a carpenter bee with a yellow spot on its face can’t sting you? This is because those particular bees are males, or drones, and do not possess a stinger. Carpenter bees are not social, but for the most part live a solitary lifestyle. They can wreak havoc on an old wooden structure. If this is a problem there are control options, such as traps or insecticides. To fix the damage caused, just plug the holes in the fall or winter and apply a fresh coat of paint. The bees do not like fresh paint.

How many of you have noticed what looks like an awful lot of ant hills invading your yard? These are actually another type of bee that is found in this area called ground bees. These bees are solitary in nature and are not harmful. Their life cycle is very similar to the bumblebee and carpenter bee. A female will lay eggs in a brood chamber that looks like an ant hill and seal it off. She does this many times until she dies, leaving the larvae safely encased in the ground. In the spring, new bees will emerge from the brood chambers and start the process over again. This process can actually provide aeration for your lawn.

And finally, the most recognizable bee in our area is the honey bee. These are the only ones to make and store honey. Honey bees are best known for pollination, which is the act of transferring pollen of one flower to another. Did you know that a honey bee’s primary purpose is to collect pollen for the hive and not for the flowers? The pollination of flowers is a by-product of the bees collecting pollen. Pollen in the hive is used as a protein source for the larvae.

Bees don’t just visit flowers to get pollen, they also get a sweet substance called nectar. This nectar is a plant’s way of rewarding the bees for visiting the flower. The nectar is taken back to the hive where it is converted into honey and used as a food source when mixed with pollen.

If you see a swarm in the coming months, please do not bother it. Call a beekeeper or the Wilson County Cooperative Extension office and we can connect you with a beekeeper who can come collect them. Also, if you have hives of honey bees of your own, want to become a beekeeper or just want to learn about them, please consider joining the Wilson County Beekeepers Association. Our next meeting is June 7 at the Wilson County Agricultural Center. Refreshments will be served at 6:30 p.m. with an informational meeting to follow at 7. In the future, we will try to meet on the first Thursday night of each month. If you have any questions, please call 252-237-0111.

Tommy Batts is a commercial horticulture agent in Wilson County