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Hamptons Life

Sep 13, 2019 5:15 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Call A Beekeeper, Not A Bee Killer

Sep 16, 2019 10:18 AM

The scene was sadly familiar. Master beekeeper Deb Klughers got a call about a swarm of honeybees hanging from a tree in Amagansett. The call came from a landscaper, who was hoping to have the swarm captured and relocated. The bees were about 12 feet up a tree.

“I was on the ferry, on my way to Connecticut,” Ms. Klughers said. “I called several beekeepers I know, until I found one who could go. It was her first swarm call ever.

“When she got there, she was very confused. She called me and said, ‘I don’t know what to do. They’re all on the ground.’ I told her it sounded like they’d been poisoned — but the homeowner was swearing up and down they hadn’t been. He said the pest control company knocked them to the ground. The pest control guy said they were on the ground when he got there.

“I don’t know who did what, but the story kept changing, and somebody wasn’t being honest.

“Two days later, the homeowner called me back, because they were still on the ground, dying. It was horrible. It was a big swarm, and probably a 4-foot-wide swath of dying bees. There was a black liquid, an oily substance, all over them.

“I put a comb of frame on the ground so I could take a picture showing how big the mass of them was. And as soon as I did that, the survivors started to climb onto it. It was absolutely heartbreaking.

“I waited until all the bees that were strong enough to climb onto the comb did, then I put them in a small hive box and took them back home with me. I felt like they had suffered so much, I just couldn’t leave them. I didn’t abandon them to die with the rest of their sisters. I started feeding them and, a few days later, when they were still alive, I gave them a queen and a frame of brood.”

Neither the homeowner nor the pest control company would agree to talk on the record — but it doesn’t really matter. The story line is one that’s repeated dozens of times every year on the East End alone.

Ms. Klughers broke into tears talking about it — heartbroken for the thousands of bees that died a miserable death, but also angry at the ignorance that leads to the brutal poisoning of a species we rely on for so much of our food supply.

“This has been happening way too often,” she said. “I get a call about a swarm, or bees in a structure, but then somebody sprays them. So, by the time I get there, it’s too late.

“A week after that other incident, I got another call about a swarm. When I got there, things seemed a little weird. Turned out one of the people living in the house had emptied a can and a half of bug spray onto them, but they didn’t want to tell me. So not only did the bees get poisoned, but I was in there handling them and getting this stuff all over me, because nobody told me they had been sprayed.”

While a giant, buzzing cluster of insects may look frightening, a swarm is simply the birth of a new colony. When a colony is thriving and gets too populous for the space it’s in, the workers will take steps to prepare to swarm. They build a few “queen cups,” in which the queen lays eggs, then feed royal jelly to those larvae so they grow into new queen bees. The first queen to hatch dispatches the remaining queen larvae. The workers also cut back on rations for the old queen so she loses some body weight and is able to fly.

Once everything is ready, and before the new queen hatches, at least half the colony’s bees will leave, taking the old queen with them. The queen will land on a branch, a mailbox, a fence — almost anywhere. Her minions gather around, keeping her warm, safe and fed. Meanwhile, a few hundred scout bees search for a new place to live, a process that can take anywhere from several hours to a few days.

The scout bees come back to the swarm to report on the possible home sites they’ve found. Through a series of moves called the waggle dance, each scout tells her sisters about the real estate she’s found. Research shows that the better the housing site, the stronger the waggle dance, which then prompts other scouts to check out the recommended site.

By checking all the promising alternatives, the scouts gradually winnow down the choices. Once 15 or more have agreed on a site, they return to the swarm and prompt the waiting bees to fly to their new home.

During this transition period, honeybees are vulnerable and at their least dangerous: They can’t forage, they’re exposed to the weather, and their queen is always in danger. Only about one in four swarms actually makes it to a new home and survives. And, as they have no babies or food to protect, stinging you is really low on their list of priorities.

A hollow tree is usually first choice for a swarm to settle in, but if that’s not available they might end up moving into a more problematic locale. A small hole in a house’s siding can be enough to allow bees to move into a wall of your home or business — not an ideal choice, in the judgment of most property owners.

But, again, killing the bees is not a good option.

Think about it: Once honeybees move in, they immediately begin building wax comb, storing honey and raising babies. Within a few weeks, they have a sizable estate set up.

You notice bees coming and going through a small hole in the wall. At this point, you have two options: poison them and seal up the wall, or call a beekeeper to remove them.

You go for what seems like the easier choice — empty a can of Raid into the hole, seal it up and move on. Except now you have a wall full of dead bees, honey and larvae. Without the bees to maintain order, the larva will rot, the honey will drip down inside your walls, and every kind of vermin in the neighborhood will be drawn to your house.

If all of this isn’t enough to discourage you from unleashing Armageddon on some hapless colony of honeybees, it may soon be illegal to do so. Ms. Klughers, tired of seeing so much senseless destruction of bee colonies, launched a petition on change.org and began contacting local legislators to push for a law similar to one already passed in New Jersey.

Per that legislation, residents and exterminators have to attempt to contact at least three beekeepers identified by the New Jersey Beekeepers Association for help in relocating nuisance honeybee colonies before making any attempt to destroy the bees.

The East Hampton Town Board last month passed a resolution in support of the pending legislation aimed at protecting honeybees. Ms. Klughers has met with State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., whose office said he is in the process of drafting a bill to protect honeybees from destruction.

Currently, the petition at change.org has nearly 4,500 signatures. For more information, or to sign the petition, visit http://chng.it/2KrnxHWj2c.

And if you see a swarm of bees, or have a colony living someplace they can’t stay — please reach for the phone, not the pesticide.

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