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The Bee’s Knees

How To Love The Swarm In Your Backyard

By Colin Mann

Special to the GPHN

Support your local bee. Plant flowers, not pesticides. Photo courtesy of Colin Mann

Bees swarming on a fence, looking for a new home. Photo courtesy of Colin Mann

Some might think it strange that staring down into a box full of tens of thousands of flying, stinging insects would put you at ease. But here I am.

And there are dozens of us. Well, probably a lot more than you’d think in Park Hill. According to the available census data of Colorado beekeepers, there are more than 40,000 managed beehives in the state.

Backyard beekeeping has exploded in popularity over the past few years. In the spring you can’t walk into a garden, hardware, or big box discount store without bumping into some display proselytizing backyard beekeeping. Save the bees! Protect our pollinators! We are going to die! Some of these may be a bit hyperbolic, but honeybees are hugely significant pollinators and they are definitely experiencing severe declines due to a combination of mites, habitat loss, pesticide use, and crop monocultures.

So what’s the average homeowner supposed to think about this? Could they start keeping bees? Of course. But it’s a time commitment, there’s equipment to buy, and it’s hard to look good in those white jumpsuits. If only there were some easy-to-implement ways to help honeybees and other pollinators thrive… (I think you can see where this is going.)

The lowly dandelion

Planting more flowers is an excellent way to encourage neighborhood bees. As it seems like every shred of greenspace in Denver becomes developed, honeybees can struggle to find the food they need in our urban environment.

Fortunately, pollinator-friendly neighborhoods like Park Hill are a great respite for honeybees. And they aren’t alone. The honeybee is just one species of non-native insect (Apis mellifera) – but Colorado has over 950 species of bees! Not to mention all the butterflies, moths, wasps, bats, birds, ants, flies, and other important, but lesser-known pollinators.

As native habitat becomes scarcer and scarcer, it’s important for us to provide for all of our local pollinating forces so our vegetable gardens and flowerbeds can still flourish. You’ll have better-looking gardens and they’ll have a better ecosystem to thrive in.

While we’re on the topic of flowers, allow me to advocate for the lowly dandelion. They aren’t the favorite weed here in Colorado, but they are critically important for urban bees. Dandelions provide early-season pollen for bees to feed their brood as they start to come out of winter. Plus dandelions serve as a great heads up to beekeepers that it’s time to start paying closer attention to hives – making splits to avoid swarms, switching brood boxes, and adding honey supers.

Am I advocating for our neighborhood to be overrun by dandelions? Not exactly, but just limit herbicide use. Most lawn weeds are a result of other issues such as soil compaction, lack of organic matter, or an incorrect watering regime; not because your neighbor has skimped on weeding.

If you feel like herbicides are necessary in your lawn or garden, don’t allow them to run off into nearby flowerbeds or other areas that could impact available forage for bees. If you leave a few dandelions behind, you can feel good knowing you’re playing an important part in supporting neighborhood bees.

Stay calm, and swarm on

I previously referenced swarming. Massive amounts of bees are not just the things of Nicolas Cage-based memes. Swarms are a natural way for colonies of bees to expand and split off from their original location to find new places to live. In fact, swarms can be seen as a positive for bees as it means their colony has survived the winter and is booming with bees.

However, swarms can be risky for bees as well. If left on their own, nearly 80 percent of swarms don’t make it through their first winter. Swarms huddle around the queen bee but don’t have eggs, larvae, or honey to protect. They are really quite docile as they are just looking for a new place to call home.

If you encounter a swarm, stay calm and call someone like myself – a local beekeeper or the Colorado State Beekeepers Association’s swarm hotline (1-844-SPY-BEES). They will put you in touch with an expert who can safely rehome the swarm. Act fast! Swarms can move in just matter of hours and will quickly relocate to a hollow tree, brick wall, or your attic where extraction can prove much more complicated.

A word about yellow jackets

Reducing pesticides is a great way to help out neighborhood bees. Before grabbing the pesticide, think critically about the damage the pests are causing. Sure, your kale may look like it took a load of buckshot, but is it really worth spraying it with poisonous chemicals? How will that impact beneficial insects? Sometimes a good spray of water is enough to knock off marauding aphids.

If you do need to turn to pesticides, use limited amounts, take care not to have overspray, or join Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. to learn how to make your own DIY pesticides that don’t use harmful chemicals.

Many gardeners have found good results with a dusting of diatomaceous earth, which destroys anything with an exoskeleton. However, be careful not to use it on flowers as it can still impact bees the same as other insects.

As a beekeeper, many people ask me about yellow jackets. At this point, I feel it is my duty as an ecologist to point out that wasps do provide some pollination benefits. However, they can be much more aggressive than honeybees, so if you choose to take matters into your own hands, I won’t hold it against you. Use a yellow jacket trap (it won’t attract bees) and if you have to use a spray – stay on target.

As a local beekeeper, I want to say thank you to all my neighbors who have taken steps to plant more flowers, reduce pesticides/herbicides, take an educated response to swarms, and generally support our pollinators.

I pledge to continue to help maintain the pollination of your gardens if you pledge to put a little thought into how your actions might impact our neighborhood bees. If that results in some additional dandelions popping up in our yards, we’ll all be better for it.

Colin Mann is a longtime, local beekeeper and owner of Vine Street Farms, an urban farm specializing in beekeeping instruction and support. He can be reached at colin.mann@vinestreetfarms.com or 303-588-6780 for all your beekeeping or swarm capturing needs. Colin lives with his family, chickens, and, of course, bees in the Park Hill neighborhood.


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