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Bees. (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyOctober 27, 2023

Why bees are swarming in Auckland

Bees in a question mark on a blue backdrop
Bees. (Image: Archi Banal)

It’s not a sign of the impending apocalypse – just a reminder that spring has finally arrived.

Kim Kneijber sounds slightly flustered when she picks up the phone. The Auckland beekeeper and member of the local beekeeping club has two swarms of honey bees on the back of her truck and she’s just getting ready to head out and relocate them to a “lovely home in Northcote”. 

This is the busiest time of the year for “swarm collectors” – beekeepers who, often voluntarily, help to rehome swarms of displaced bees that have decided to take up residence in areas they’re less than welcome. 

Reports have been popping up on social media in recent weeks showing swarms in areas you may not expect them. In one video shared to Twitter, a cloud of bees looms ominously at an intersection on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road. On Facebook, people have been heading to their local community groups to ask for advice on how to rehome clusters of bees that have turned up in their backyards. “Wondered what the loud humming was at first then looked up and realised the air was thick with bees,” said one local in search of a beekeeper in Mount Albert.

Kneijber gets near daily call outs to rehome bee swarms at this time of year. One, she says, had decided to nest up in the hubcap of someone’s car. Another had picked out a letterbox. Many choose trees in backyards. “When they first swarm, they’re only landing temporarily. Then they will fly another one or two kilometres to a more permanent home.” 

There’s a Whatsapp group with beekeepers from across the country, allowing reports of new swarms to be shared far and wide. “Beekeepers love to rescue bees, we like to see them homed correctly and then we can manage them. We can look after them. Beekeepers are more than keen to collect a swarm of bees,” she says. 

But while a swarm of bees on a busy Auckland street may seem like a sign that the end is nigh, Kneijber says it’s actually “pretty normal” for this time of year. In fact, it’s just a sign that spring has arrived.

“We get our swarms because our bees have been hibernating quite nicely over winter and all of a sudden temperatures get a bit warmer, flowers start appearing and that all stimulates bees to increase in size,” she says. 

While Kneijber attests that it’s not unusual to see plumes of bees buzzing about in residential areas, she admits this year is a “little bit crazy”. That’s because of the wetter than usual start to the year, delaying the typical arrival of spring weather. “Finally we’ve got a pretty decent spring,” she says. “The flowers that are out at the moment everywhere are pretty cool to see, that brings in loads of food for our bees.”

The cause of a bee swarm is basically due to a lack of available real estate. When a hive gets too overpopulated, the bees decide it’s time to move on and look for a new home. About half of the colony goes with the old queen, and 50% stay at the original hive where a new queen has taken up rule. 

This can result in massive swarms racing about as they try to find somewhere new to live, which is how you end up with footage like the video taken on Ponsonby Road. Kneijber says her first thought was for the bee’s safety when she saw that video. “Poor bees,” she exclaims. “I really hope they don’t get squashed flying along the road.” 

It’s most important that the queen doesn’t get squashed. If she suddenly disappears, the bees will be left confused about what they should be doing, explains Kneijber. “Bees often use landmarks and roads as a guideline… as to where they’re going to go,” she says, which is why they often pop up in residential areas. “Scout bees go out and find the new home that the swarm is going to go and live in.”

It’s at this point that beekeepers are typically called in to assist – and Kneijber says the bees are usually more than happy to be offered some friendly help. “There was a swarm [recently] that landed on a branch in a tree. I went along with a cardboard box, ‘cause that’s all I had on me, and I shook the bees into that cardboard box – simple as that,” she says. 

“The most important thing to go into that box is the queen and then the other bees will follow. Then I close it up, take it away and take it home and set up an empty beehive and then I shake the bees out in front of the hive and they all walk in.”

And while one bee can be too many for someone frightened of getting stung, Kneijber says that you really don’t need to worry about a swarm – which sounds exactly like what a beekeeper would tell you. In reality, she says, a swarm will be all filled up with honey and far too dopey to bother stinging you. “It’s the least likely time they’re going to sting you,” she claims. “The bees have their little honey tummies full to take the honey to a new home.” 

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