700 Active Beehives in NYC…Maybe More!

There are an estimated 377-700 beehives in the five boroughs of Manhattan living in Brooklyn, Tribeca, Queens, the Village, Staten Island and the Bronx.  Unless managed, these bees will start to swarm as early as April and as late as August as they did when they swarmed a Times Square hot dog stand in 2018.  Read on to find out about the nature of swarming and raising honeybees in New York City.

More New Yorkers Are Raising Bees

According to the New York Post, the official number of registered beekeepers raising bees in NYC increased 21% in 2018, but many insiders believe that the total number is much higher because not every NYC beekeeper has registered with the NYC Department of Health, a legal requirement for raising bees in the City.

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Early Foraging Triggers Swarming Behavior

 

Bees that survive the winter typically enter the Spring ready to fully assault the nectar and pollen of emerging spring flower sources, especially the flowers of maple trees, willows, alders and crocuses, some of their favorites.  In the city, maple trees can blossom as soon as February.  The trees produce a very tiny, bright red, tuft of flowers at the end of their highest branches.  Bees go mad for them and they are an excellent source of pollen, something the bees desperately need if they are going to raise new, young brood.

 

Maple blossoms, blooming in February and March in our area, are an excellent source of pollen for NYC bees.

 

A Lack Of Space Also Stimulates Swarming

 

Early spring sources of pollen and nectar are followed by an even bigger wave of bee nutrition as bee-intoxicating plants like dandelion, henbit, locust, apple, cherry, ornamental plum and peach, and clover come into bloom.  When hives are new, bees must split their time foraging for food and building comb in which to raise brood and store pollen and nectar, but bees that survive the winter already have existing honeycomb they can use as well as left over stores of honey and pollen from last year’s harvest.  This means that the bees can dedicate all of their woman power (all worker bees in a hive are female), to gathering heaps of spring pollen and care for the offspring of their regal leader, the queen.  This dramatic increase in bee population and food stores signals to the bees that it’s time to swarm.

 

Healthy hives like this one emerge from winter with thousands of workers, leftover supplies of pollen and honey, and plenty of prebuilt honey comb.  All of their energy can be directed into growing and feeding the hive resulting in an overcrowded colony that feels the need to swarm.

 

Swarming Is Nature’s Way of Increasing The Bee Population

 

Swarming is the honeybees’ way of creating a whole new colony of bees.  Abundant food sources and a rapidly growing population of bees inside the hive are believed to be the stimuli that start the swarming process.  Hives that are about to swarm produce swarm cells, peanut-sized protuberances of honeycomb designed to hold and hatch out a new queen.  In hives that are about to swarm, the queen usually cuts back on the number of eggs that she lays and the workers are often seen gathering in a cluster at the entrance of the hive, a phenomenon known as bearding.

 

Swarm Comprised Of The Hive’s Original Queen and 60% of Worker Bees

 

Just before the swarm is ready to leave the hive, the queen lays eggs in the swarm cells.  These eggs will grow into new queens and continue the dynasty while the original queen and roughly 60% of the rest of the worker bees leave to start another colony elsewhere.

 

First Trip Is a Short One

 

Queens are large and not used to flying so the initial exodus from the hive is a short one.  Tens of thousands of bees, including the queen, fly from the hive to a nearby location and mass together in a large clump.  Here, bees hang together, usually from the branch of a tree, and vibrate to maintain an internal swarm-core temperature of 95 degrees F.  Then, as many as 500 scout bees fly from this mass into the air above the streets of New York City looking for a suitable new home.

 

Scout Bees Fly Around NYC Looking For a New Home

 

When scout bees believe that they have found a good place to live, they return to the swarm and undertake what is known as a waggle dance that triangulates the new location as it relates to the angle of the sun and the swarm’s current position.  Scout bees that are most enthusiastic about where they believe the swarm should live, waggle excitedly.  Other scout bees check out the location for themselves and if they agree it would be a good new home, join the original scout bee in proclaiming the location through the waggle dance.  When all the scout bees agree to a single, new location, the entire swarm once again takes flight and moves into their new home.

 

Excellent video showing an upclose look at the waggle dance.

 

Back At the Hive, Regicide!

 

Meanwhile back at the original hive, queen eggs hatch, are fed by the nurse bees that have remained in the hive, and grow, but only one queen will live to become an adult. That’s because the first queen to emerge will kill all of her other royal siblings.  After this, she takes flight, at great risk to predation by birds, to copulate in flight with male honeybees.  Drones, as these male bees are called, are from the existing hive as well as surrounding hives, both domesticated and wild, ensuring genetic diversity.  The queen will mate with as many as 24 males during this flight.  After 1 to 3 flights of this kind the queen has enough sperm to last her for a lifetime of egg laying and will never mate again for as long as she lives.  Each male, lucky enough to mate with the queen, dies immediately after copulation.  A fertile healthy queen will lay up to 2000 eggs a day or 1 million eggs over a lifetime of 3 to 5 years.

 

This is an AMAZING video of honeybees mating in flight.  The film footage is extraordinary.

 

Bee Swarms Pose Little Danger; Don’t Harm!

 

Perhaps terrifying to behold, bee swarms pose little danger to humans that give them wide berth.  Swarms only stay amassed outside of the hive for one to three days.  Please do not spray them with insecticide.  If a swarm has gathered near your apartment, on your house, or anywhere else on your property, allow it to stay there until it moves elsewhere.  You can also call an experienced beekeeper who, if they can reach the swarm, can put it in a box, and cart it off to a new home managed by the beekeeper.  It’s likely that the beekeeper will be happy to help you.  Swarms of bees are worth anywhere from 100-200 dollars!  The beekeeper will either retain the existing queen that comes with the swarm, or repopulate the swarm with a fertile queen from a breeder so as to ensure genetic strength and reduce the chances of spreading disease.

Can Swarms Be Prevented?

Yes. Experienced beekeepers can look for the signs of a hive ready to swarm and split the hive into two smaller colonies.  This process is called, simply enough, splitting a hive.

How Do I Get Started Raising Bees In NYC?

You can take the course offered by the NYC Beekeepers Association (though the 2019 is already sold out!!).  Cornell also has a list of resources for wanna ‘bee’ beekeepers on their website.  Remember that all beehives should be registered with the NY Department of Health.

Is Beekeeping Expensive?

It depends on what you think is expensive.  To get started, you’ll need a hive, a bee suit, and some beekeeper tools.  Typically all of this is sold as one introductory package by a beekeeping supply company like BetterBee for around 300-400 dollars.  You’ll also need some bees.  NYC beekeepers often drive to Wilkes-Barre, Pa where they can pick up a pre-ordered package of bees that includes about 5 thousand bees and a queen. These bees travel all the way from California where they are raised specifically for this purpose.  You can also purchase what is known as a nuc, or a small hive already populated with a laying queen, workers, and honey comb filled with some eggs, brood, honey, and pollen.  Packages of bees and nucs cost in the range of 150-250 dollars each.

Do I Have To Worry About Disease?

Yes!  Certainly the most pervasive health concern with raising bees is infection with the mite, Varroa destructor, a parasitizing insect that was accidentally brought to the U.S. around 1987 and has sense caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to North American apiarists and their bees.  Use this link for more information on the tragic introduction of this parasite due to the illegal importation of bees.

In some ways, hobby beekeepers threaten professional beekeeping operations as well as wild populations of bees.  Inexperience identifying disease, especially the threat of Varroa mites and the many diseases that they vector, allows for reservoirs of disease that would otherwise not exist.  As these sick bees forage and interact with other bees, they pass along disease, and generally increase disease prevalence.  Hobby beekeepers may also incorrectly use mite controlling chemicals resulting in resistant strains of mites that can live on to reinfect other colonies.  For more on this topic, see the additional reading selection below.

Can I Buy Honey Made In NYC?

Yes.  You should check out the stands at the farmer’s markets throughout town.  Andrew’s Honey is also a great source of honey, information, classes, and other bee related resources.

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