The Bees Are On the Move

July 1, 2021

Honey bees would usually be a boon for any garden. Bees provide an essential environmental service – pollination. They visit flower after flower collecting pollen grains and slurping up nectar. When a bee carries pollen from one flower to another and visits two flowers of the same species, there’s always a chance than some pollen from the first flower fertilized the second. The process of pollination causes “fruit” to form – the botanical definition of fruit used here is “the mature, ripened ovary”. Approximately 80% of food crops humans eat are pollinated by bees.

You would think our very own honey bee colony would be welcome, especially when it is near our Ethnobotanical Garden. However, 10,000 to 12,000 bees taking over an irrigation box in the Sundial Plaza is an issue for our gardeners. Tohono Chul groundskeeper Shauna could not safely use our irrigation system. She was forced to hand water all the plants in the area. Plants need water to survive and if gardeners cannot water our gardens properly our plants suffer. Using an irrigation system saves both labor and water; two precious commodities in Tucson’s summer heat. So we had no choice but to enlist the help of bee expert Monica King in relocating this colony.

Monica used a gentle vacuum to collect bees. Specially designed to safely hoover live bees, it took approximately 45 minutes just to clear the irrigation box’s cover and make it safe to open. Monica then used a prying tool to carefully open the box. The bees had sealed their hive by tightly gluing the lid with propolis. Also called “bee glue”, propolis is a sticky substance bees secrete to make their hives impermeable. Inside, Shauna and Monica found 7 slabs of honeycombs. The bees had completely taken over the irrigation box. Monica cut out the honeycombs to clear the box for its intended use. Shauna could now use the irrigation system and use our precious water more efficiently.

A vacated hive and the few bees left behind are vulnerable to “robber bees”. These are bees from another colony looking for an easy meal. Instead of collecting nectar to make their own honey, robber bees raid a weakened hive and steal its honey. They cut into honeycombs and gorge themselves before flying away. The stolen honey is then regurgitated and added to the robbing colony’s reserves. Shauna and Monica left the box open to prevent a new colony from moving in. Over the next few days, Shauna sprayed the inside with soapy water and covered the lid with a towel soaked in pinsol to make the area undesirable.

Just like any animal with a mouth can bite, any insect with a stinger can sting! So please use caution and keep your distance if you see swarms of bees.