Honeybees at Home

Honeybee collecting pollen from an Aster flower.

Honeybees serve an important ecological and commercial role as pollinators. But their numbers have been declining for decades, and recovery will take a long time. You can help by avoiding pesticides and planting a bee-friendly garden. You can even host a hive in your own backyard — it’s not actually that hard, and it’s not as dangerous as you might think. But what if you’ve already got bees, and you’re not a willing host? A trained beekeeper can relocate your errant hive while still protecting the colony.

How Important Are Honeybees?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of honeybees. Out of the 25,000 bee species in the world, only four make honey. Producing honey and beeswax is just the tip of the iceberg. Although many species of insects pollinate plants, honeybees contribute to the pollination of 84 percent of the crops grown for human consumption (a third of all the food we eat) as well as many crops grown for livestock. The commercial value of honeybees in the U.S. alone has been estimated over $15 billion per year.

But populations of honeybees and other pollinators have dropped a shocking 90 percent in the past 20 years. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) decimated commercial hives across the country. The sudden die-off is still unexplained. Researchers think it results from a combination of stressors including pesticide use and parasites. Rates of CCD are still high but seem to have slowed somewhat. Still, it will take years to rebuild the bee population to healthy levels.

Hosting Honeybees

If you want to contribute directly to that task, hosting honeybees is fairly simple and the risk of bee stings is quite low, especially with newer, “hands-off” hive designs. The supplies and even the bees themselves can be purchased commercially. Early spring is the best time to start a new hive. But if you’re willing to wait until the second year before harvesting honey, colonies initiated later may survive the winter. If you just want to encourage pollination and don’t care about collecting honey, bee hotels for native bees are even easier to maintain than hives.

You don’t have to become a beekeeper to help bees. Planting a pollinator-friendly garden is an important way to help sustain bee populations. In fact, according to the EPA, the most important thing homeowners can do to protect honeybees and other pollinators is to refrain from using landscape pesticides whenever possible. Neonicotinoid pesticides commonly used in the U.S. were banned in Europe in Europe after studies proved that the chemicals kill bees and reduced their ability to reproduce.

Honeybee hive on tree

Experienced beekeepers can remove swarms and place them in new hives without harming the bees. Image: Adobe Stock

Relocating Honeybees

Sometimes homeowners find themselves in possession of honeybees that they can’t keep — like the 50,000 honeybees found in a Cincinnati garage. Usually, when a hive gets too big, half of the bees will swarm to establish a new hive. If you find a cluster of bees hanging from a limb, branch or built structure, you may have a swarm. Do not spray it with insecticide, or even with water (which could make the bees aggressive).

Whether you’ve discovered an unsustainable hive, or a swarm has landed in your yard, you can still help the bees without hosting them. Experienced beekeepers can remove swarms and place them in new hives without harming the bees. There is a national online directory of beekeepers who remove swarms. Many regional beekeeping organizations, as well as county extension programs, also maintain lists of qualified beekeepers.

Beekeepers often remove swarms free of charge, however it is always wise to ask about fees up front. If your “swarm” turns out to be a species other than honeybees, humane removal is usually still possible. However, fewer beekeepers are prepared to remove other stinging insects, and those who can will almost always charge a fee.

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Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.

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