City of Lawrence parks host honeybee rescue program that finds safe homes for swarming bees

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

A bee swarm rescue box located in a tree in South Park, 1141 Massachusetts St., is pictured on July 7, 2022.

High in a tree in Lawrence’s South Park, a wooden box is secured to a branch, offering a home for honeybees that would otherwise have trouble finding one.

The swarm rescue boxes have recently been placed in 16 City of Lawrence parks, so far helping to catch and relocate 17 swarms of honeybees. Leading the effort is Robert Brooks, who has a Ph.D. in entomology, or the study of insects, and proposed the bee rescue program to the city and volunteers his time to the project. A single swarm can contain thousands of bees, and Brooks said the program is helping to save and relocate valuable and endangered pollinators.

“What I’m trying to do is give a place for these bees to stay,” Brooks said.

The program aims to protect the honeybee population, which has been suffering declines for decades. The total number of managed honeybee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.66 million today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Major factors threatening honeybee health can be divided into four general areas: parasites and pests, pathogens, poor nutrition, and exposure to pesticides. Pollinators, particularly honeybees, are a critical part of agricultural production, with more than one-third of all crops in the U.S. requiring insect pollination.

Brooks has written various papers and books on bees and is a former curator at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. He said he has been keeping bees since he was 8 years old, and over his lifetime — he’s 70 now — he’s witnessed the decline in bee health, and he grew especially concerned when he realized some people were killing bee swarms that tried to establish hives in their homes.

“Bees were in such stress, not like my childhood where bees would thrive, that I got concerned,” Brooks said. “Especially when I saw people in town, actually a couple of instances, where they were killing the bees that were getting into their houses.”

photo by: contributed

A bee swarm is pictured on a rescue box in Veterans Park, 1840 Louisiana St.

Honeybee swarms are a naturally occurring process and happen every spring and summer when a colony gets too large and a group of honeybees breaks away to find a new home. Brooks estimates that more than 100 beehives swarm in Lawrence each year, but not all those swarms will succeed in finding a suitable hollow tree to locate in. He said that can mean the swarm ends up entering houses or buildings via tiny holes, where they typically seek to establish a hive in walls or the space between floors. Brooks sometimes removes swarms from homes, but he said not everyone knows to call a beekeeper, and property owners might resort to spraying swarms with insecticides or hiring an exterminator.

Swarming typically occurs May through July, and this is the first season the rescue boxes have been in place in city parks. Brooks said that 17 swarms have been caught so far, amounting to hundreds of thousands of honeybees total. Brooks is assisted by Steve Batten, who helps him monitor, position and remove the swarm boxes. Once a swarm locates inside a rescue box, the bees are moved to insulated hives built from repurposed lumber. Brooks said he places the hives in areas away from pesticide-sprayed fields, including properties in and around Lawrence.

“My whole idea is what’s best for the honeybee,” Brooks said.

photo by: contributed

Robert Brooks stands next to bee hives that now house swarms caught in June at the Prairie Park Nature Center, 2730 Harper St., and Water Tower Park, 1225 Sunset Drive.

Brooks approached the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board earlier this year with the idea for the bee swarm rescue program, which included his offer to volunteer his time for the effort, and both board members and city staff were on board with the idea. He said he’s not aware of other municipal programs in the U.S. that trap and relocate swarms in this manner.

The city has about 50 parks and preserve areas, and the 16 parks or other natural areas with bee swarm rescue boxes are: John Taylor Park, Lawrence Nature Park, Constant Park, Water Tower Park, South Park, Hobbs Park, Burroughs Creek Trail and Linear Park, McGrew Nature Preserve, Oak Hill Cemetery, Naismith Valley Park, Prairie Park Reserve, DeVictor Park, Centennial Park, Veterans Park, Dad Perry Park and Broken Arrow Park.

City of Lawrence Horticulture and Forestry Manager Tyler Fike said the feedback the city has gotten about the program so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Fike said he’s encountered bee swarms before when doing forestry work for the city, and though the huge clusters of bees can appear alarming, the bees are not easily aggravated because they do not have a hive to defend.

“They are very docile; they are looking for a new home,” Fike said.

Fike said there haven’t been any issues with the bee rescue box program so far, though he said the city did hear some concerns from visitors and its own maintenance staff when there was a pretty active swarm in Oak Hill Cemetery. Ultimately, he said the city relocated a hollow tree trunk where it was believed the swarm originated to an incubator farm in North Lawrence that is part of the city’s Common Ground community garden program.

Fike said the bee swarm rescue program, due to its unique nature and overall goals, aligns with the city’s strategic plan goals related to city identity and sustainability. Fike said the number of swarms relocated so far has been pretty encouraging.

“We’re excited for what it could hold in the future,” Fike said.

Brooks also has broader aspirations in addition to just rehoming the bees, as he plans to use his expertise to look for “hygienic” bees that have naturally succeeded in dealing with the parasites, pests and pathogens that have plagued managed honeybee colonies.

“I’m trying to find a bee, and certainly they are out there, that is completely hygienic and can survive all of these pressures,” Brooks said.


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