The Honey Bee Colony

How to Handle These Valuable Pollinators

It’s the stuff of Hollywood movies and spine-chilling stories — a swarm of bees attacking everything in their path. Mad, ruthless, and vicious buzzing creatures covering whatever strikes their fancy (usually a person) until they succumb to the deadly stings! This is how a swarm of bees behaves, right?
Well, not exactly.

First of all, let’s discuss what a honey bee swarm is and exactly why they’re swarming. A swarm is an entire colony of bees looking for a place to start up housekeeping. It includes a queen and up to 30,000 of her pals, the worker bees and drones. They do this without any anger, aggression, nor any plans to sting people.

Usually, a young queen is born into a honey bee colony and she takes the place of the old queen (no one said life as a queen was easy). The old queen sees the writing on the wall and starts packing for greener pastures. Don’t worry, she has some loyal subjects — she ends up taking about half of that colony with her to hang around a new castle.

The entourage is led by the queen bee and her pheromones — which has them following her beyond all reason. When the queen finds a comfy bush or tree branch, the swarm will settle there, as well. Ultimately what they’re looking for is an unoccupied cavity in which to call home. This is the time when a savvy beekeeper will place a beehive below the swarm to attract them. If the colony approves (and by “the colony”, I mean the Queen) then someone just got themselves a brand new hive, pollination team, and honey processing plant!

Let’s back up a bit. There’s a thick, black, buzzing cloud going through your yard and you’re supposed to believe that these guys don’t have your name at the top of their tiny, bee hit-list, right? That’s exactly right. And the reason that they don’t have stinging on their mind is that honey bees typically defend two things: their young (in the hive) and their honey (also in the hive).

They tend to get irked when you mess with these things — as well they should. In the honeybee’s defense, if you’re going to go into a hive and take either of those things, well…that actually makes you the aggressor.

That said, personally, I wouldn’t gr

ab a broom and start flailing it around trying to swat at the swarm. I mean that probably falls under the definition of provocation, am I right?

If you find that a swarm of honeybees has landed at your home, garage, or porch and you not only don’t believe a word I’ve written here, but are getting ready to sue me because these bees are certainly going to kill you in your sleep…all I ask is that instead of taking matters into your own hands, please contact a local beekeeper to have them gently removed. Honey bees are one of our most valuable pollinators and they’re having a terrible time staying in existence.

Trivial Note: I’m not a honey beekeeper. Although, I am a Western Blue Mason Beekeeper, which isn’t of any importance to this article at all. I only mention it for the record.

Learn to Recognize Local Beneficial Insects

Know What’s In Your Garden

By now you’ve been made very aware of the importance of beneficial insects in the garden — both pollinators and predators. You’ve been instructed to encourage the good guys into your garden and celebrate their appearance.  All of which is good and correct.

Except…how can you be sure that the less-than-cuddly-looking-four-legged creatures walking amongst your blossoms are the right ones? After all, heroes aren’t necessarily handsome (although we always assume that they must be). No, your knights-in-shining-armor may have a face only a mother could love — or a gardener.

You might be surprised at how many good guys you don’t recognize. For instance, most people are very familiar with ladybugs and recognize them as part of the cavalry. The Volkswagen-shaped beetles will consume about 50 aphids a day, munching on plant mites and scales while they’re at it.

Yet I wonder how many ladybug children are killed simply because they don’t have Brad Pitt good-looks. If you didn’t shudder when I mentioned the little darlings, then you probably haven’t met them. If you can picture a cross between an alligator and a lobster wearing black and orange/red leather biker pants — only creepier — then you’re on the right track. As far as looks go, ladybug larvae have nothing in common their charming parents. Another example of a less-than-lovely beneficial insect is the Damsel Bug. As the old saying goes; she’s plainer than a mud fence.

So, you can see how important insect recognition can be if only so you don’t squash the very critters that are there to save the day! The best place to start is by learning about the insects local to your area. I like having a bug identification page called Mac’s Field Guide and they’re available for different regions. This large, laminated card has good garden bugs on one side and bad ones on the flip side. The one I have for California has images of the kids next to the adults, too. It also tells you where to look for both good and bad bugs and which plant whets their appetites.

If a particular insect really piques your interest, catch it in a jar. Bring it down to your local nursery or your local Cooperative Extension Office (Master Gardeners)for proper identification. You were probably going down there to see what new vegetable starts they brought in this week anyway.


Ladybug facts:

There are over 300 types of Ladybugs just in North America

Ladybugs come in many colors besides red: like pink, yellow, white, orange and black.  See more at:

The hard shell covering the adult ladybug protects the fragile wings and is called the elytra. It is so thin you can see through it and is used to make the ladybug look dangerous to predators. They actually secrete a foul tasting, orange fluid from the joints in their legs. Ladybugs will even play dead if threatened.



Our Native Bees

How to Help the Bees Feel At Home

by Sandy Swegel


Ever feel like you’re doing all the work and everybody else is getting all the credit?  That was the great scenario I watched unfold yesterday.  It was a warm sunny day and there were hundreds of honey bees buzzing loudly in a hot pink crab apple tree.  Such a sight and sound is a crowning point of Spring and gives us hope for honeybees.  But I was working in the rock garden nearby pulling weeds out of a mini-hedge of yellow Basket of Gold. (Aurinia saxatilis)  While everybody else was watching the crab apple full of honey bees, there was one solitary native bee happily feeding and pollinating an entire row of bright yellow alyssum growing over the rocks.  This native bee wasn’t getting all the glory but he was a Rock Star.

Native bees are often much smaller than honey bees. They don’t make honey for us.  They have evolved alongside native plants so they prefer to feed on native plants rather than human-made hybrids.  The native bee I watched wasn’t a hive builder but makes a solitary nest just for itself in the dirt or somewhere in a little hole in an old dead tree.


You can encourage native bees to live in your garden by planting native plants and by building little nests the native bee likes.  You can make a small practical native bee nest out of a box and hollow tubes, or you can go all out and make some garden art as we see in these pictures.

Or just honor the native bee by noticing it.  Next time you’re in the garden, look for the little bee that’s at least half the size of all the other bees you see.  That’s one of our unsung pollinator heroes.

How to Build your Own Native Bee Nest:

Photo Credits



The Native Bumble

All About the Bumblebee

by Summer Sugg

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s—it’s…a bumblebee? This seems to be more than fitting, seeing as this pollinator’s genus name, Bombus, literally means “booming”, or “buzzing” in Latin. Anyone who’s had a garden in Colorado, or hiked in its wildflower filled landscapes can testify to the astounding amount of noise a bumblebee can make while zooming past your head. It definitely caught me off guard when I got the amazing opportunity to work with the bumblebees in the field with two biology professors at CU (Diana Oliveras and Carol Kearns) during the summer months as research.

I’m sure many of you know what a bumblebee looks like, but what I never knew before my research experience was that there are more colors than just black and yellow to a particular species of bumblebee. The abdominal segments (6 on a female, 7 on male) are where the color is located and can contain orange, white, rufous red, and even brown pile (fur) with the yellow and black depending on the species.

Female bumblebees are very interesting, especially the long life of the queen (one year or longer) who first mates, then overwinter to emerge in the spring with a mission to gather and find a good place for a hive to lay her eggs. The workers are also female, have stingers that can sting something as many times as it wants without dying, and are much smaller than the queen (except for when the new queen is chosen and leaves the hive with the males). Male bumblebees are also interesting, and some people who are good at identifying the males can scoop them up with their bare hands to examine them. The males have no stingers or corbiculae (female’s shiny area of the back legs’ femur surrounded by stiff hairs to carry pollen) and sometimes loiter on flowers or branches with their large humorous bug eyes.

Female (left) vs. Male (right)—different species, but you can see the characteristics. (

Another interesting fact is how bumblebees are native to North America with 23 species found in Colorado alone, while honeybees are of European origin and are only a single species. The experience of working with them and this new knowledge also gave me more appreciation towards our native pollinators, especially bumblebees who are the primary players in helping to pollinate some of Colorado’s (and other state’s) native wildflowers, such as the shooting star anthers (as pictured below). This is due to their large size, enabling them to literally buzz out the pollen, which other non-native pollinators cannot do.



Book: “The Natural History of Bumblebees—A sourcebook for Investigations” by Carol A. Kearns and James D. Thompson


Flowers to set the mood

Flower Arrangement Tips

by Sandy Swegel

One of my favorite jobs each year is designing twenty-two flower pots for an urban condo. The homeowners are real garden lovers but they live in the middle of the city on a high floor. Rather than be content to just look at the amazing mountain vistas their elevation provides, they decided to bring flowers to them in profusely planted pots.

The fun for me is not just designing the interesting combinations of flowers and foliage, but also using the flowers to set the mood for each tiny “room” on the deck.

Here are some of the moods I’ve asked the flowers to set this year.

Sweet, soft gentle awakening.
I love vivid designs, but sometimes one needs to move slowly into the day. So the flowers outside the bedroom window are pretty and not too stirring. Salmon geraniums with spilling blue lobelia. A small white pot with water plants like papyrus. A gentle mood set for early morning.

Late Afternoon Jolt of Wow
The east side of the deck has afternoon shade and really comfy chairs, so it’s a grand spot for guests and afternoon cocktails. Planters here are full of what I call the diva plants: giant purples and oranges. Weird grasses or showy reds. This year a feathery purple Japanese Maple surrounded by orange tropical kangaroo paw and goldfish plant and any other odd orange flowery thing I could find provide the centerpiece. Last year a hot red castor bean plant and lime green foliage and fuchsia colored flowers did the trick. Pots on the perimeter are full of giant petunias and cascading sweet potato vines. Diva flowers always look even more amazing after a few margaritas.

Dinner time
After cocktails, people shift to the grill area. Plants are sturdy here on a west deck. A couple of potted evergreens to balance the big grill and table. Orange hibiscus that is bright and colorful but doesn’t mind being jostled or heated by the grill. Multi-colored coleus to create the illusion of color and texture in the setting shade. An herb pot in case the grills needs some extra rosemary sprigs.
Fading light
After the sun sets, people move indoors and even though there are soft solar lights coming on near a fountain, the flowers fade in the coming night. Exceptions are the white alyssum and silver foliage spread throughout pots that glow under moonlight or the orange osteospermum with the purple fluorescent centers that hold the light a little longer.

Flowers are such powerful influences in our lives. We choose what we grow for many reasons.

The first 21 days of a bee’s life.

A Bee’s Life

by Sandy Swegel

You have to watch this Ted Talk. It’s a time-lapse video of the first 21 days of a bee’s life and how bee babies turn into what looks like slime into a bee.

I think promoting bees is the real key to reversing the dumping of pesticides in our environment. It’s just not compelling to try to say we should use fewer chemicals in our lawns and trees. But it does persuade people when they understand how many bees are being killed. In our area, there are noticeably fewer bees this Spring. Even non-gardeners are starting to notice.

I had a different opportunity this week to talk about protecting bees. We have a big problem in Colorado in that the Emerald Ash Borer that destroys ash trees finally reached us. The problem is the systemic treatment that people hope will save the ash tree. Our scientists think the only ash trees that will survive will be ash trees that are treated with the systemics that are toxic to bees and other pollinators and beneficial insects. The trees will be treated every year for years and years.   So we might save the ash trees at the cost of flooding our environment annually with the chemicals that kill bees and beneficial insects. This is the dilemma when we face when we use chemicals to save one part of the environment…we then damage other parts of the environment.

For most people, this is a boring argument. That’s why I like things like videos of developing baby bees. It makes the story more real.   The more we understand the importance of bees and pollinators, and the more we think they are cute and valuable, then the better chance we have for stopping the systematic pouring of toxic chemicals into our yards and parks.

A Bug Superhero

The Spined Solider Bug

by Sandy Swegel

This week I learned from one of our readers (Thanks Teresa) about a “beneficial” bug I didn’t know about before. I thought these armored looking true bugs I saw were all villainous stinky bugs, but in fact, there is a look-alike bug, the “Spined soldier bug,” that is a true bug superhero to vegetable gardeners. The spined soldier bug eats the young of two of the most damaging villains in our gardens: the Mexican bean beetle and the Colorado potato beetle. It also eats the eggs of its look-a-like Brown marmorated stink bug. If you are an organic gardener who picks off bad bugs to drop them in a bucket of soapy water or just squashes them, you need to learn how to tell the difference between the Spined Soldier Bug and its apparent evil twin the Brown marmorated stink bug. One protects your vegetables and the other eats them. It’s a true fairy tale of good and evil (at least from the vegetable’s point of view.)

It’s not very obvious how to tell the two bugs apart, but the biggest clue is the sharp spiny shoulders of the Spined soldier bug…sort of like it’s little superhero cape. Check out the photo for differences in markings on the abdomen. There’s also anecdotal evidence that the spined soldier bug is more likely to be alone and not to run away frightened by you. He is a superhero after all. Some say the Brown marmorated stink bugs are quicker to scurry away and hide.


Anytime we decide to kill one kind of creature in our garden, we risk doing more damage than good through our altruistic ignorance. We mean well if we go around killing stink bugs, but we need to really know what we are doing or we’ll accidentally kill the best bug allies we have. My rule for pulling weeds is always, “Don’t pull anything unless you know its name.” My rule for killing bugs is now the same, “Don’t kill anything unless you know its name for sure!” No guessing.




Photo Credits

It’s dandelion season!

Dandelion Love

by Sandy Swegel

Let them grow, let them grow, let them grow.

Warm sun after a winter rainy day means dandelions arise from the deep and fill the neighborhood with bright yellow cheer. In the olden days, gardeners might panic at the sight and rush out with their dandelion digger (imagine how primitive people used to think….making a tool for the sole purpose of killing one kind of plant).

Kids were the first humans to know that dandelions are our friends. They brought in freshly picked flowers for their moms or blew dandelion puffs all over the yard. But we adults have learned to love, love, love dandelions.


Because our friends the bees and lots of other critters love them.

Bees love dandelions.
Dandelion flowers are the first food for bees. There’s not much to eat yet in Spring and a field of dandelions is the bee-equivalent of an all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet. And it’s not just the dandelion nectar the bees want….it’s the high protein pollen that really fills the bees up. Paleo bees.

Birds love dandelions.
Birds love the high protein seeds, especially little larks and finches who will spend hours tugging the seeds free.

Bunnies love dandelions.
At least if they’re eating dandelions, they’ll leave your crocus alone.


Humans love dandelions.
Think foraged greens and flowers on salads.

You know who else likes to eat dandelions? Bears do. It’s not uncommon in Alaska to see bears in the meadow eating dandelion heads! Wow.

What a great day. Dandelions are in bloom!

Photo credit:

Who’s in My Garden?

The Creatures that Live in Your Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Who’s in My Garden? That’s the question I’m hearing most this week. What is this and what do I do about them?

Grubs and larvae. These big squishy curled-up fat wormy looking things are usually the larval forms of beetles or moths. Lots of cutworms especially. They aren’t your friends because they usually come out of dormancy hungry and start chowing down your plants. What do I do with them? I put the grubs and other unwelcome critters like snails and slugs in the bird feeder. Mama birds who are always watching you even if you don’t realize it will swoop down as soon as soon as you walk away and take the grubs and slugs to feed their new babies.


Solitary wasps and bees
When I’m vigorously cleaning up spring debris, I sometimes accidentally unearth a solitary wasp or bee. These are usually still dormant so I haven’t gotten stung. I usually just recover them with debris and move on. Sometimes they are yellow jackets which I really should kill….but I don’t know bees and wasps enough to tell the beneficial ones from the bad ones…I’ll get the yellow jackets in the pheromone traps later this month.

Lady Bugs
I’m happy to say there are lots of ladybugs this year. When I disturb them during cleanup, I just apologize and put them back in place. I know they’re eating aphid eggs and all kinds of undesirable things.

There are the bigger critters naturally. The rabbits and mice and voles chomping on emerging bulbs. Squirrels digging up tulip bulbs. Rat traps will get the voles. Hawks and cats often take care of mice. Squirrels and rabbits: good luck. One friend has trapped 11 squirrels this week and relocated them fifty miles away.

Enjoy the Spring weather and spring flowers….and use this new-life time of year to notice how many critters share your garden space. Birds in the air, and grubs in the soil. It’s all good.

Photo credit bird: Angela Vidrich[email protected]/6167398051
Photo credit grub:

No Neonics: Three Easy Ways to Help

Protecting Yourself and Creatures from Pesticides

by Sandy Swegel

Just a moment to be serious now. Spring has arrived and stores are filling with bedding plants and seeds. At the same time, homeowners are noticing all the weeds in yards and some still go out to buy weed killer.

There are three easy quick things you can do that make a difference to help protect bees and yourself from the “neonic” pesticides.

Learn One Name

That’s the neonic most likely in retail products. If you’re an overachiever, the other names are Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, Dinotefuran. These are ingredients in weed killers, especially products marked Bayer or with names like Systemic or Max. Just check your labels and don’t buy these.

Watch For the Label

Customer pressure led Home Depot and Lowe’s last year to agree to put labels on all plants treated with neonics. The label is deceptive….makes it sound like neonics are better…but watch for the label.

Ask Your Retailer

There’s no government regulation (Alas!) that says neonics have to be labeled. The best thing you can do is ask at the garden center if the plants you are buying have been treated with neonics. If they don’t know…then you can probably assume the plants have been sprayed. The treatments can last up to two months in your garden…making your pretty flowers potentially lethal to bees that land on them.

Every time you ask a garden center employee or a grower if their plants have been treated with neonics, you are educating them. That’s what we are after. Nobody really wants to harm bees or the environment. Two years ago when I asked a major grower here in the Denver area if they used neonics, the owner looked at me like I was some crazy Boulder liberal. Which of course I am. He said, “Bah humbug, there’s no way to grow plants without neonics.” But last week, his greenhouse (Welby) had an open house in which they proudly said that most of their plants were grown without neonics and they were continuing to work on how to get neonic-free.

Oh, and of course there’s a fourth thing to do to help the bees. Grow your own plants from good non-pesticide treated, non-GMO, often organic, often heirloom, always neonic-free seeds like ours!
For lots of info on neonics in consumer products, you can read this pdf put out by Xerces.

Photo Credit