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Bee Keepers Warn of Swarms Due to Early Spring

By Serena Solomon | March 19, 2012 7:26am

MANHATTAN — The weather might be beautiful, but the balmy early spring could come with a sting in its tail.

The unseasonably warm March could prompt premature bee swarms — and more of them than normal, experts said.

The mild spring, coupled with a winter that barely got below freezing, has pushd bees' reproductive cycles ahead of schedule, meaning swarms — formed when a queen bee, along with hordes of workers, leave a colony to find a new nesting site — are expected earlier.

New York City Beekeeping is already working to alert and teach responsible hive management in an attempt to avoid the increase.

"There is literally an explosion taking place in those hives," said Anthony Planakis, an active police officer and the NYPD’s go-to bee guy. The 49-year-old Planakis, who has been working with bees since 1977, keeps a total of 15 hives between his Queens home and a location in Connecticut.

Jim Fischer examines a slatted rack from a bee hive.
Jim Fischer examines a slatted rack from a bee hive.
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DNAinfo/Serena Solomon

Whenever a swarm is found in the city, Planakis is on-call to gently remove the homeless bees and find them a new hive.

"I have extra swarm boxes. I have already made calls," said Planakis, who reached out to fellow beekeepers to see who is interested in taking in the stranded insects. "I told them 'Listen. I need you 24/7. If I got bees I have to come drop them off.'"

Swarming is a natural part of the seasonal activities of bees. Around this time a queen bee is reproducing possibly causing overcrowding in the hive and creating the need for the colony to relocate to a more suitable residence.

The swarming season generally takes place from May through to July. This year it could begin in March.

Last year numerous swarms of bees hit the city both captivating and scaring New Yorkers, though New York City Beekeeping's Jim Fischer said a swarm is not to be feared. 

"When bees are swarming they are at their most docile," said the Upper East Side resident, 53, adding that any stings that occur during the process are usually accidental.  

"They don’t have anything to defend. They don’t have a home or any young or any resources," he said.

A democracy is the imagery Fischer uses describe the phenomena.

"A swarm of bees is a cluster of bees that are doing one thing — hanging on a tree branch and voting on what home to occupy," he said. "They form a caucus."

Throughout the warmer days of early spring, "real estate" scouts are sent out from hives. During the swarm, those bees attempt to sell their finds to the group through a communicative dance.

Rather then the enduring slog of a presidential race, a decision is made within hours or, at the most, a day, according to Fischer.

However, thanks to a list of sensationalized horror movies like "The Swarm," where African bees terrorized American cities, swarming creates bad PR for bees and the city’s beekeepers.

A little over two years ago the tiny insect was as illegal to keep in the city as bears and tigers.  Decriminalization happened  on March 17, 2010.  New York City Beekeeping fear mass swarming this year could lead to public pressure for renewed prohibition.

"It is a lack of education and inexperience. That is why we are having classes," said Fischer, who estimates there are 80 hive locations registered in New York City with about a third of those in Manhattan.

On a Saturday morning at East New York Farms in Brooklyn, Fischer demonstrated to dozens of the city's beekeepers anti-swarming techniques such as splitting a hive in two, or "requeening," in the fall.

Monica Titera, a 34-year-old Upper West Side resident who attended the training day, is considering splitting her hives earlier this year. This practice divides a colony into two hives, allowing for growth and squashing the bees' instinct to swarm.

"I am relatively nervous about the bees swarming early because we have had such unseasonably warm temperatures," she said.

Titera fell into beekeeping a few years ago through the urban agricultural movement. Initially, she wanted to green her rooftop to provide a pollen oasis, but after connecting with Fischer she went a step further.

"I love my bees," said Titera, who has them located in Queens.

Swarm or no swarm, Fischer deems bees an essential part of any urban ecosystem.

"For every beekeeper, there are a hundred gardeners," he said, pointing to the many community gardens sandwiched between highrises.  

"If people want to grow local food they need a local pollinator. It’s not magic. It takes a bee hive."