Keeping calm the key to capturing supersized bee swarms, says apiarist

Keeping calm the key to capturing supersized bee swarms, says apiarist

A thickening cloud of thousands of honey bees surrounds Scott Whitaker as he reaches up to cut a branch bulging with a large swarm.

Bare-handed, he shakes the mass of insects onto a tarp, gently scooping up worker bees to find their queen and help guide them to safety in a box. 

A teardrop-shaped swarm collection at North Maleny.(Supplied: Hinterland Bees)

A professional apiarist and honey bee removal expert, Mr Whitaker says that a prolonged period of wet weather on the Sunshine Coast has resulted in more supersized swarm encounters than usual this season.

And while it is understandable for people to be intimidated by bee swarms, there are good reasons why he does not get badly stung.

Scott Whitaker first needs to find the queen.(Supplied: Hinterland Bees)

It is not just to do with him keeping calm and not releasing fear pheromones (the unconscious smell produced by frightened people) that stir up bees.

“The reality is, they [swarms of bees] are super gentle,” Mr Whitaker says.

The worker bees follow the queen into a hive.(Supplied: Hinterland Bees)

“If you see 20–30,000 bees in a cloud of bees it’s quite awesome, it’s an amazing sight to see, but those bees aren’t out to attack anyone.

“When bees are swarming, they’re at really their most docile point because bees are only going to defend an established nest.”

Captured on camera

Mr Whitaker shoots and shares videos of his work, educating the more than 200,000 people who follow his Hinterland Bees Instagram and Facebook pages about the fascinating behaviour of bees.

Since August, he has attended about 80 call-outs to rescue swarms from people’s yards and cut out hives from the walls and ceilings of houses between the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane.

He says prolonged wet weather and a steady flow of nectar and pollen have caused a second surge of large bee swarms in south-east Queensland at a time when they are usually easing off.

Bees invaded the wall of this Kenmore home.(Supplied: Hinterland Bees)

Population explosion

“Bees work themselves to death; they only live for about six weeks, and the primary cause of death of a honey bee is them wearing out their wing muscles and wings,” Mr Whitaker says.

“They fly out to do their job, and they just can’t get back, but if we get lots of wet weather and they’re not flying, you’ve got bees cooped up in the hive, and they might live for another two or three weeks.”

Mr Whitaker says a good queen lays about 2,000 eggs a day, and within weeks, a rain-restricted hive can house tens of thousands of extra bees in crowded conditions.

The swarm’s queen bee is secured in a clip for safe transport.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

That is contributing to supersized swarms when the sun finally comes out.

“Some of the really massive swarms that I’ve encountered [have had]  tens and thousands of bees, whereas in other years, they’re usually a lot smaller at this time of the year,” Mr Whitaker says.

“It’s exciting to find the big ones. They’re the ones that I love to find.”

Honeycomb infested by small hive beetles.(Supplied: Di McQueen-Richardson)

Hive invasions

Queensland Beekeepers Association Treasurer Jo Martin says prolonged rain has also caused a significant spike in infestations of invasive small hive beetles, which can “slime-out” hives within a matter of a few days.

“Colonies that are already under pressure from expanding numbers, and that are further stressed by small hive beetle, can sometimes swarm,” Ms Martin says.

“It’s a trigger that we’ve got no more room, we’ve got an attack inbound, so we need to leave.”

Queensland Beekeepers Association treasurer Jo Martin says beehives must be well-managed.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Ms Martin says good hive management is crucial and it is important to quarantine any collected swarms for up to six weeks before moving them onto other apiary sites.

Mr Whitaker’s quarantine site is packed with relocated swarms.

Scott Whitaker quarantines bees after rescuing them from homes and swarms. North Maleny, 2021.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Queen bees are reliant on worker bees to feed them and Mr Whitaker says that before a hive swarms, those food deliveries change.

Queen bee diet

“Before they swarm, they put her on a reduced diet to slim her down so she can fly longer distances,” Mr Whitaker says.

“Sometimes that doesn’t work, and she can’t fly that far.”

Scout bees fly ahead to search for a suitable new home, and Mr Whitaker says weep holes in brick veneer houses are a popular entry point.

Swarms like setting up inside homes.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

“If you haven’t seen the swarm arrive, people are quite often just gobsmacked by finding out exactly what’s inside,” he says.

“They can only see a few dozen bees on the outside, but the fact is that that whole mass of bees has moved in, clustered up inside the wall, and they are getting to work immediately building comb.”

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