COURT HOUSE — No doubt about it, it's that time of year; that certain time of summer when groups amass by the thousands to leave their homes to make their way to a nicer place where there's room to spread out and breathe.
There are swarms of them, just making their way from hither and yon in search of a new place to set up shop to call home. The county is abuzz with the sound of them. While most fear them, some welcome them with open arms.
It's that time of summer when honeybees are leaving their hives in search of new digs. To that end, some have made their way to attics, eaves, tree limbs and any other place their queen decides to roost while she rests.
Joe Alvarez of Cape May and Mike McGurk of Court House are two of the area's experts when it comes to all things apian. Both are officers of the Jersey Cape Beekeepers Association.
"We want to help the general public not only know about honeybees in general," said Alvarez, "but to know what a swarm is and what they can do about it when they find one."
Some people, when they see a swarm, will do anything to get rid of it, said McGurk. They may use anything from a can of Raid to power washers to fire extinguishers to kill off bees. But swarm removal is within a phone call's reach.
"It's illegal to kill honeybee hives or swarms in the state of New Jersey," said McGurk. The bee is, after all, the Garden State’s official insect.
According to McGurk, swarms of honeybees are safe. "When they're in a swarm situation, they have gorged themselves first," said the beekeeper. "And it's almost impossible for them to sting."
"They fill themselves up with honey," said Alvarez, "to the point that physiologically they cannot use their stinger."
McGurk said the reason for the engorgement is because the bees, when leaving the hive, have no idea when they will be able to eat again.
"The old queen and half the girls go,” said Alvarez, "to look for a new home."
Swarms leave hives when the quarters get tight, said the beekeepers. Approximately half the population of the hive will leave in search of new digs.
“If the hive, as a whole, decides to divide, then another queen cell is created to produce a new queen,” said Alvarez. “The queen does not decide that, the colony does.”
The keepers explained the dynamics of the hive.
“There is one queen in a hive,” said McGurk. “She goes out on one mating flight and collects enough sperm to lay eggs for five years. She only mates one time.”
“All worker bees are female; drones are male,” said Alvarez. Drones are only in the hive for one season and for one reason – breeding. “But not necessarily with that queen in that hive,” he added.
“They provide absolutely nothing to the hive,” McGurk said of the males. As if not contributing to the hive was bad enough, males who do breed die immediately after mating. Those who do not breed are kicked out of the hive in the autumn.
“You can watch the females push the males out of the hive,” said Alvarez.
The male/female ratio in a hive is staggering. “Out of 250,000 girls, there are about 200 males in a colony,” said McGurk.
With only one queen to a hive and her heir apparent gestating in a cell, the old queen knows that her days as the monarch in that hive are numbered.
“They move to set up a hive somewhere,” said McGurk, noting that while most bees are hardworking and flit about, the queen presents a problem when moving the swarm.
“The queen will go out,” said McGurk, “and she hasn’t flown in two years, so she’ll get tired and she’ll sit on a branch until she gets her bearings.”
In the bee world, where goes the queen, there goes the colony.. As she alights on a branch for rest, her swarm will amass with her.
“They are protecting her and keeping her warm,” said McGurk. “She might go 100 feet, she might go more, but she’ll rest until the scouts find her a new home. That may take a few hours; it may take a few days.”
In true queen fashion, the queen bee does not care where she rests. And that's where the problem comes in for people. Where she rests, her colony joins her. And that creates a swarm.
Traveling swarms are able to be outside but the goal of the swarm is to find an enclosure in which to set up housekeeping.
"Sometimes it's a structure like an old hollow tree, an old barn or a hollow wall," said Alvarez.
Seeing a bee swarm can put fear in people. "It's scary looking and they don't know," said Alvarez. "We had someone say that the buzz from the swarm could drown out the noise from Route 9."
"And that can be intimidating if you don't know," added McGurk.
Bee swarms should not be killed. Instead, they can be removed by beekeepers and taken to a new hive. Usually, the cost for removal is minimal, if at all.
"If you have a swarm, don't get the can of Raid," said McGurk, "Please don't."
"We don't want to have finances dictate what you may do when you see a swarm," said Alvarez. "If you don't have the money, call the association."
If contacted about a swarm, members of the Jersey Cape Beekeepers Association will come to the property, remove the bees and take them to a new hive. "We do not charge for it," said McGurk.
According to McGurk, the bees are safe, harmless and even if a property owner does nothing, the swarm will probably fly away, unless they're inside a house.
"If they're in your house," said Alvarez, "then they've already decided to start a hive in your home."
As part of the swarm removal process, beekeepers remove the queen. "If she goes, they will die in a couple of days," said McGurk of the bees left behind after the queen is removed. "Even if you leave 100 there, they will die in a couple of days."
For swarm removal or information about bees or beekeeping, the Jersey Cape Beekeepers Association can be reached at 609-628-2758.