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Swarm 1

With Spring Underway, Prepare Your Garden for Bees

Mar 30, 2019

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By Dr. Bill MacElroy

Well, it must be spring because we’ve already received our Sonoma Gazette Gardening Guides! 

Nobody has to tell us that this has been one cold, wet winter. Many folks are still struggling to recover from way too much water and some pretty chilly temperatures. So while these events may not put us in the “garden planning” mode, it is nonetheless time to start planning our planting schemes for this year. For those of you who have already started plants indoors—good for you! But there are many opportunities for seed selections to be planted in about four to six weeks.

One thing that you may not be aware of is that the bad weather has also had a very negative impact on our pollinators. Sonoma beekeepers have been hard hit this year, with many reporting much-higher-than-normal losses of bee colonies.

“In Sonoma County, the main and sometimes only nectar flow starts in March and ends sometime in June,” says  Christine Kurtz of the Sonoma County Beekeepers’ Association. “An erratic spring might make the honey bees miss important plant sources (food) because of long periods of rain that keeps the bees home bound.”

Photo: PerfectBees LLC

It’s hard to say exactly how the weather affects bees; but when bees face environments that they consider to be unfriendly, they can decide to leave en masse seeking better (e.g. warmer, drier, more bountiful) territories. Unfortunately, when the colony makes this decision at the wrong time of year, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire: they have a very high likelihood of complete die-off. This year, lots of bees in the county left their hives too early and disappeared.

This is the time of year that the remaining hives, which did survive, begin to consider making new colonies by swarming. They do this by collecting as much nectar as possible, creating a new queen, who mates with drones, and then takes off with about half of the bee population in the box. This leaves the existing queen with enough workers to rebuild the colony if conditions are right.

Because so many colonies didn’t make it over the winter, any swarms that occur this spring are extremely important for the overall preservation of our pollinator populations. It is, therefore, up to all of us to keep our eyes open for newly swarming bees. Typically, a swarm will land on a tree branch or post or occasionally under the eaves of your house and will look like a basketball sized clump of bees. When bees swarm, they tend to be very docile and you shouldn’t be afraid of them. Whatever you do, PLEASE don’t spray them with insecticide.

Photo: TheAdvocate.com

If you see a swarm outside your house, please contact the SCBA Swarm patrol for a beekeeper near you here. Someone will respond quickly. It the bees are inside the walls of your house, you may need an extractor—a professional who will remove the bees and protect your home. You can find a list (without specific recommendation) here.

Credit: Monte-Bellaria/Johnson Hoang

As always, it’s great to plant flowers and herbs that blossom throughout the summer. This will provide much-needed food for the surviving colonies. Here is a short list of some of the most helpful plants, which bees love, if you let them flower:

  • Basil 
  • Borage
  • Fennel
  • Lavender
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Salvia (Sage)
  • Sunflower
  • Thyme

Happy Gardening!

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