Should Amateur Beekeepers Keep Hives in Residential Neighborhoods?

Aggressive Bees in Concord Raise Questions for Amateur Beekeepers

With widespread worry about pollinators dying off, there’s a growing interest in backyard beekeeping.

Enter the aggressive bees that had residents of a suburban Concord neighborhood holed up in their homes for much of the weekend. Bay Area residents might start to wonder: Is there such a thing as too many honeybee hives in the neighborhood? They are colonies of stinging insects after all.

Robbed of their homes and enlivened by the afternoon heat, the aggressive bees were dive-bombing pedestrians again on Monday. Veteran beekeeper Norman Lott said he could’ve predicted that. With the presence of Africanized honeybees confirmed in a UC San Diego report two years ago, he said amateur beekeepers need to step up their maintenance of backyard hives.

If the hive owner performs regular checks of his boxes, they could spot a hive that gets taken over by Africanized bees before the colony gets too big to be manageable. Lott recommends killing the queens of aggressive hives and replacing them with gentler European queens.

Furthermore, Lott said every new beekeeper needs a mentor to give advice and guidance on maintaining beehives, spotting problems and treating mites and other hive diseases. It’s also polite to inform and consult neighbors before installing a hive, but most are easily won over by free jars of hyperlocal honey.

The longtime Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association volunteer said the beekeeper in Concord destroyed the hive on Saturday, but he should have waited so the upset bees could return home and be captured.

Mike Stephanos, another active volunteer with the Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association, said high-profile bee attacks often prompt a rash of calls to his organization’s swarm hotline, where callers can request help from a volunteer beekeeper to remove a swarm.

“There might be a colony living in an old stump or a tree out back. But after these incidents, people are thinking about calling an exterminator and removing them – even though the colony’s been there without causing any trouble for years,” Stephanos said.

But removing gentle colonies leaves space in the ecosystem for Africanized bees to move in. Maintaining the health of European honeybee hives in suburban neighborhoods is not part of the problem, said Lott. It’s part of the solution.

“If we don’t have our gentle European bees in this area, the Africanized bees are coming anyway. If we don’t fill the niche here, nature fills a void,” he said.

Lott, who breeds queen bees at his home in Alamo, is awaiting DNA test results from UC San Diego on the angry bees he collected last weekend that will show what proportion of the insects' genes are Africanized.

Beekeepking continues across the American Southwest, despite the presence of Africanized genes throughout the population of feral honeybees. He said he won’t change much at his beekeeping operation because he already keeps a close eye on his hives. Besides, his neighbors don’t mind.

“I buy them off with honey,” he said.

If you spot a swarm in your neighborhood, call your local beekeepers group and ask for swarm removal services:

Mt. Diablo Beekeepers Association

Alameda County Beekeepers

Marin County Beekeepers Association

San Francisco Beekeepers Association

Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild

Sonoma County Beekeeper's

Most swarms are new queens venturing out of their mother hive for the first time, maybe resting on a branch or in the eaves of a house while drones cluster around to protect her. Volunteers will collect the bees and put them in a hive, where they can be monitored by a beekeeper. Some situations call for a more experienced beekeeper, like when bees have drawn out a comb in a wall or structure. In the Bay Area, swarm season lasts through June.

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