Published June 9, 2016
LeCHEE, ARIZONA – When a swarm of 35,000 honeybees settled on a pipe rack at the Navajo Generating Station while searching for a new home, plant officials called a mover instead of an exterminator.
Scaffold builders at the plant had come across the basketball-sized swarm at the end of their workday and notified Erwin Roan, an NGS fire specialist with the plant’s emergency response program.
“We waited until the next day to go out there to see if the bees would move on their own, but they didn’t,” Roan said. “That’s when we made arrangements for Tom to come out to the site and remove the bees.”
That’s Tom Geiger, a retired deputy chief of engineering and maintenance at Grand Canyon National Park and a beekeeper. In Page, Arizona, he’s known as the man who relocates bees when they suddenly appear where they don’t belong.
When someone calls the local police or fire department to report a swarm that has attached itself to a car, a building or a bush in a yard, they call Geiger. In May, he was called four times to safely move honeybees to new hives in and around Page.
Aside from ensuring personnel safety, Roan said not harming the bees was a concern raised by his co-workers. While they understand some bees are Africanized and can be dangerous when agitated, Roan said, they also know honeybees are threatened by many factors, are critically important to the environment and should be saved whenever they can be.
“That was one of our main concerns when we called him, that we don’t just go in there and kill the bees as a way of getting rid of them,” Roan said.
There’s no telling where the NGS bees came from or where they were going, Geiger said. But they knew exactly what they were doing and had prepared for their journey as all bee colonies do, he said.
“They’ll come out of their hive and alight somewhere, wherever the queen decides to stop,” Geiger explained. “The scouts look for a new home, come back and communicate to the rest of the swarm amongst themselves, and at some point they’ll reach consensus on where to go and then the whole swarm will go into their new home.”
Because safety is the top priority at the power plant, when Geiger arrived at NGS, Roan gave him a safety briefing. Then Geiger put on his protective beekeeping suit and found the swarm clumped and undisturbed about chest high on the pipe rack. He set up his bee-collecting trash bin below the quiet colony and delicately pushed the living mass into it.
“I took my hands and just sort of scooped them into that trash can, put a lid on that one right away, set it off to the side, and vacuumed the rest of the bees,” Geiger said. “It’s very gentle on the bees. We don’t kill bees.”
His bee-collecting trash can has a lid with one-way entrances that allow bees to go in but not get back out, he said.
“Recognizing that the queen was in that can, they all went in,” Geiger said. “I came back that afternoon, vacuumed about two dozen bees that were hanging around outside the trash can and then moved them to outside of Page.”
Assisting Geiger to resettle the NGS swarm and another swarm found near the Page Airport to new hives near Greenehaven was local beekeeper Tracy Baker.
“The reason we come out here is they need to be two miles away or more from where they were caught or they’ll go right back,” Baker said.
Commercial agriculture, backyard orchards and vegetable gardens every-where need the pollination service that wild honeybees provide, she said. With honeybee hives now located outside of Page, she said her neighbors have commented that their fruit trees have never been as laden with flowers and fruit as they are this year.
About 80 percent of what we eat requires pollination, and honeybees pollinate about 85 percent of that, Geiger added.
The search for honey and beekeeping is an ancient art, writer and beekeeper Mark Magill reports in his book, “The Way to Bee.”
“The record of honey hunting dates back to the Paleolithic Era,” Magill wrote. “Cave paintings show hunters climbing rickety ladders to the tops of trees or overhanging cliffs to reach into the hives of live bees, risking their necks and the prospect of painful stings to gather honey. The keeping of bees in domestic hives is recorded in Egyptian tombs.”
The U.S. population has nearly tripled since 1940, Geiger said. But bee colony numbers today are only half what they were then. At the same time, the need for food production has increased, requiring commercial beekeepers to truck thousands of beehives around the country to meet pollination needs in agricultural states.
More than 60 percent of commercial colonies in the U.S. are trucked to California in February for the almond harvest, Geiger said, but even that is not enough. So every year honeybees are also brought from Australia to pollinate southern crops. As the American population increases, so does the need for increased pollination services.
Many factors contribute to the decline of bee colonies, he said. This includes loss of forage because of development, intense agriculture practices where the land is denuded except for the cash crop, new pests and diseases, stress of cross-country transport to crops area where disease is easily spread, poor management practices and pesticide use.
As the season changes and the weather warms, Geiger explained that bees swarm when their colony size increases, they outgrow their hive and they need to head out to look for a new home.
“Early in the season the queen starts laying heavily preparing for the main nectar flows and pollen collection time,” he said. “At some point, they outgrow their home and swarm, and the purpose of the swarming is to propagate the species.”
The queen leaves with about half of the colony while a new queen becomes the egg layer for the original colony, he said.
Bees are incredibly intelligent, efficient and productive insects, Geiger said. Scouts locate the best nectar, and communicate the direction, distance and quality so that the foragers’ time is used most effectively.
“They communicate that back to the other bees in the hive so that they can all find those rich nectar sources without having to be out there searching,” he said. “It’s totally amazing.”
In a single season a honeybee colony produces up to 650 pounds of honey, flying 20 million miles, Geiger said.
Bees may temporarily settle in an unlikely place – like the NGS pipe rack – because they follow their queen, who may tire sooner than the hive’s female worker bees and drones. When she lands, the colony naturally gathers around her.
“She flies twice in her life,” Geiger said. “She flies to become mated and after that she stays in the hive and lays eggs. That’s her only job. And the only other time that she will fly is when the swarm takes off to re-colonize.”
Geiger said his appreciation for bees began when he was growing up in Ohio. An electrician across the street was also a beekeeper, he said. Geiger was fascinated that his neighbor was unafraid of two things most people fear, electricity and bees.
Today he reads everything he can about bees and has begun to educate the local community though a bee column in Page’s weekly newspaper, the Lake Powell Chronicle.
Geiger said when a solitary bee suddenly shows up and flies around a person’s body or head, it’s not necessarily trying to sting them. It’s more likely trying to gather information that it will then take back to the hive to communicate to other bees. Geiger said bees have the ability to gather visual cues and use pattern recognition and identification.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “They’re far more intelligent than we think judging from my experience with them and my observations.”
Bees are also incredibly social insects, he said. From queen to drones to scouts, every bee in the hive has a job to do for the betterment of the colony. For that reason, Geiger is patient when on assignment to collect and move a swarm to a new safe location.
He will gather as many of the bees as he can on his first visit and return as many times as it takes to collect the last bee.
“We leave no bees behind,” Geiger said. “We’re like the Marines. No one gets left behind. Every one of these bees goes with me when I leave here. There are no stragglers.”
Geiger said his experience with bees has been positive and safe. But he warns that they are defensive creatures and will do what it takes to protect their colony, so caution is always necessary.
“Although swarming bees are generally passive, it is best to be cautious and steer clear,” Geiger said.
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